Singapore actress Janice Koh on giving up decades-long career after tongue cancer

The former NMP shared how she coped with the treatment and how a daily routine kept her optimistic.

Local actress Janice Koh with husband Lionel Yeo. (Photo: Instagram/janiceymkoh)
Local actress Janice Koh with husband Lionel Yeo. (Photo: Instagram/janiceymkoh)

What started out as an ulcer on her tongue turned into a life-changing journey for local actress Janice Koh.

The theatre veteran and former Nominated Member of Parliament recounted her battle with tongue cancer to Vogue Singapore and opened up about the ordeal of losing her acting career which has defined her for more than 30 years.

Koh, 49, was diagnosed with tongue cancer in July 2022 - only after seeing a general practitioner, her dentist and an oral surgeon.

However, she confessed that she had delayed getting her ulcer checked out because of work, travels, and life getting in the way.

“It had never crossed my mind that it could be something serious,” she told Vogue Singapore in an article published last week.

More than half her tongue removed, speech affected

The treatment saw more than half her tongue being surgically removed, which meant that her speech was permanently affected.

“I’m in speech therapy and that’s been really good in helping me rehabilitate. But I’m also very aware that physiologically, there has been permanent change and it’s undeniable. I’m not going to grow a new tongue,” she said in a video shared by Vogue on Instagram.

The actress said she tries not to let her speech impairment bother her, and appears at events to socialise with friends and industry folk “so that everyone can get used to my new voice - and so that I can get used to it too”.

However, she acknowledged that she could no longer continue her acting career and harbours no expectations of “going back to work in front of a camera or on stage”.

“I’ve been performing for over 30 years,” she said tearfully in the video.

Koh said she is slowly learning to let go of acting and her husband (Lionel Yeo, former chief executive of Singapore Sports Hub) has helped her through it, sharing, “My husband had said something to me very early on in this journey, when I was wondering if I could ever act again. He said, ‘We have so many other mountains to climb. Why do we feel the need to keep going back to this one mountain?’

“His words made me question what I was clinging to and why. For those of us who are artists or creatives, our work is a huge part of our identity. It might be time for me to figure out-who am I outside my work? Am I willing to evolve? Am I willing to let go?”

Keeping calm and staying optimistic through a daily routine

Aside from giving up her career, Koh also had to contend with the side effects of her treatment - a combination of radiation and adjuvant chemotherapy - which saw her mouth filling up with painful sores and ulcers.

By the third week of her radiation treatment, she found it hard to eat solid food or soup, so she transitioned to a diet of high protein nutritional shakes.

In order to tackle the worsening side effects, Koh started on a daily routine to keep calm and optimistic.

She told Vogue Singapore, “I meditated, I journalled, I jigsaw-ed, I read a lot of books. To avoid losing too much weight, I put myself on a strict schedule of drinking five to six packets of fortified milk a day. I would go for short walks to get fresh air and exercise.

“I said yes to having visitors twice or thrice a week because it made me happy to see my family and friends. I said yes when friends wanted to drive me to hospital or send me ice cream because I knew it was the only way they knew how to help, and I knew they so badly wanted to.”

Now, she’s five months out of treatment and her scans have been clear. But, she’s under close monitoring for any relapses or recurrences.

And she’s also learnt the importance of living her days well and mindfully.

“I don't skip breakfast anymore. I do yoga, or a workout, or go on a hike in the morning. There is no fixed routine. Sometimes I spend my afternoons meeting up with friends. Sometimes I stay home, reading, doing a jigsaw or just pottering about. And I still find a lot of joy in going to the theatre.”

And though she might have given up something near and dear to her heart, she’s found something else that she’s lost in the pursuit of her career - time with her kids.

“I've spent so many years working. I work in theatre and television, where the hours are long. Since my sons were born, I have always felt like I didn't have enough time with them. I have missed birthday dinners and important family occasions because I was away at a theatre show or on a touring production,” she confessed.

But now, she is “making up for lost time”.

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