Survivor : Malisse Tan, Founder of Bobble

Malisse Tan, Founder of Bobble 

Sanitary pads made chemical free, hypoallergenic and free from toxins, chlorine, perfumes and dyes. Subscription based, delivered to your home.

ALT : We want to catch up with you today because we want to find out how you deal with what you have gone through not just as a woman, but as a mother being pregnant. 

MALISSE : The first thing is just I think it is so easy for us women to take on a lot on ourselves, we were so many hands. Sometimes I think we need to be kinder to ourselves, I think that is the first thing is that there are days that is very stressful. Basically, for me it is two things, it is time management, so I do plan my week ahead, so that I don’t run into unexpected situation. For me, I am someone that likes a little bit more control over how my week is going to run because it has so many moving parts. Secondly, it is just the mental thing, I think it is being kinder to ourselves, resetting sorts of expectation for ourselves and I think it is also the people around us. There is a support group but at the end of the day, first and foremost we have to rely on ourselves, so it is important that mentally, emotionally and physically that we are able to carry ourselves through each day. Those are things that we can’t rely on others to help us with. I think for me is making sure that mentally that I am doing okay and if I am not, you know there are days that are upsetting or stressful. I mean I am quite blessed that I have my husband, I have family that I can talk to.

ALT : Can you tell us from the beginning, how were you diagnosed, when and how do you realize?

MALISSE : I mean they are so many different kinds of cancer out there and yes, it is the breast cancer month. I think breast cancer, colon cancer these are the more obvious one that we hear about. We don’t realize that there are so many different types out there. I used to do cancer marker test every year, but those tests also cannot detect every single cancer. I thought I was doing my thing just getting those blood tests, but it wasn’t enough actually. I think we should be doing things like breast examination and all that as well, making sure you are doing your pap smear and it is very common as well. To be honest, I thought I am healthy, I am good, I think that is a sense of ignorance. How I found out was at first, I was pregnant, I gave birth to my daughter in the beginning of 2017. After confinement, I noticed that a big lump grew on my neck, a really really big lump, it didn’t hurt. I went to see the gynaecologist for my normal checkup, and I’m like what is this thing, so she put me on antibiotics for a month just to see if it will go away, but it didn’t. What she told me is that if it is something on the right side of your body, you think about your lymph nodes, your neck, your armpits, your breasts, your groin area, if there is any lumps grow there that doesn’t hurt, these are the indicators, on the right side of your body. If it’s on the left side of your body, it means that your body is fighting some sort of infections, and it will generally go away. I have had a female gynaecologist, she asked me to see a haematologist, a blood doctor that understands blood but also cancers of the blood. I don’t even fall under oncology which most people might know. So, I went to a haematologist and again saying things like right side of the body, wasn’t going away, and it wasn’t painful, so this was sort of the more sinister symptoms. So immediately he ordered for a biopsy, they took a piece of the lump, they did a test and within a week I was diagnosed, and everything happened so fast in a week. My daughter was barely two months old at that time, it was quite shocking. I think you are not expecting it, you think you are healthy and all that, but sometimes the healthiest the people have unfortunate health issues, and sometimes the unhealthiest people have no issues. You really never know, so I am kind of sad on it for few weeks, I think it was really dealing with the emotion. I think dealing with the reality like ‘Oh my gosh I have cancer’, so what I had was I was diagnosed with stage 2 Hodgkin Lymphoma, which is a cancer in your blood cells. I was lucky to have courted early enough that it hadn’t spread into my organs yet. If I have gone into stage 3 or 4, it would have spread into the organs. I decided that I need to face it head on, the doctor said that I’m young enough to withstand chemo, so I made the decision to do chemotherapy. That was two months later, it took me about a month to do the research, I went to 5 doctors from 5 different hospitals, and made sure that I picked the hospital and the doctor that I’m most comfortable with. Luckily, I had insurance, insurance really helps, even though I had really basic insurance but that really helps. I’m thankful that I listened to my parents, they said you should have insurance when you are young. I started my chemotherapy on the 1st May 2017, and there were 12 rounds of chemo over 6 months. Every two weeks on the Wednesday, 10 o’clock in the morning I will be going to the hospital and I’m there for about 5 hours doing treatment. Actually, chemotherapy isn’t the hardest part, it’s actually the recovery after that. In between when you go home, you feel like being hit by a bus. Sitting in the hospital is fine, it’s the after effect that is really tough physically, mentally, and emotionally. Other than the treatment, you are facing so many other things like for me, the particular drug that I had to go on would induce hair loss. Within a month, I knew that my hair was going to start falling out. I made a decision to take control of the situation rather than letting it to control me. I didn’t notice that my hair was falling out in clumps when I was showering and I realized actually how much hair I had was coming out so much, but still there was still a little bit of hair and it wasn’t so obvious. I decided to shave my hair, but I wore headscarves a lot. It was a decision of should I wear headscarves or wigs or whatever, but I found that wigs are itchy. I really had to find a nice, authentic looking one, some of them might be shipped from China, I have no idea where they come from. I decided to shave my head and I did it with my husband and my daughter, so we did each other’s head. I did my husband’s first, the we did our daughter’s together. We did it together, my parents were there, they recorded it and took photos of it.  I think it was quite emotional at first because for us women, our hair is like our crown. It was at first you kind of feel like losing a big part of your identity, but I think mental strength is such an important part. I kind of decided it myself that I wanted to feel liberated with this experience. I think trying to make the most out of that situation, even though yes, I shaved my head, I am going to have some fun with headscarves. People really didn’t know I was sicked because of the mindset thing.

ALT : You looked good, you looked healthy, other than the scarf you looked the same.

MALISSE : Yes, I still did my lashes, still wore my makeup, still went out. I think that is really important is that the mind, because it does come through with your energy that you give off. I just had fun with the headscarves, I got caps made and we tried to have some humor out of it. I have this cap made with my husband, so mine says ‘my chemo made me do it’ it is the idea of chemo brain where you are very forgetful. My husband’s cap was ‘my wife’s chemo made me do it’, so we kind of had some fun out of that.

ALT : How long was your chemo process?

MALISSE : 6 months, 12 times.

ALT : You were very lucky to find the chemo that worked right?

MALISSE : Well, it was partly because this particular cancer I had which is Hodgkin Lymphoma, it is one of the more highly curable cancers. So, my doctor would say that if you had to choose a cancer, this is the cancer to choose. And also, I mean not everyone survives, but it’s also my age, so if I would have catch this at 60s or 70s, it would be harder for me to recover and be cured. I caught it when I was 31, so that’s why I decided to go with chemo although I had a lot of people messaged me on my social media. I decided to talk about it, but a lot of people suggest alternative methods like changing diet or eating lots of lemons might cure cancer, some sorts of dietary things, traditional medicines, herbal. For me, I think it might work for some people, but I didn’t want to take the risks of it not working, because I have heard stories of people who tried traditional alternative ways.

ALT : Changing on diet is one of the main things you have to be aware of.

MALISSE : It is one of the things that you have to do anyway, even if you are on chemo. Even if you are not sick, you should be watching how you consumed because there are so many toxins on what we eat now. I have heard people who tried the alternative methods, and you have to cut down a lot of stuffs but because it wasn’t working and they didn’t know without going to the doctor, it got worse after trying the traditional way for months or years.

ALT : Because it is too late to come back.

MALISSE : Correct, for me I thought I was young enough to do it, I will just do it. It was figuring how to be a new mother, and kind of battling with this. It was really hard at first, we didn’t have help. It was just me and my husband and my parents would come and help from time to time. I had to cut off breastfeeding two days before I started chemo, I had to take some pills to actually stop milk production. At first, we didn’t have help. Eventually, we had to get a helper, she came in to help with the cleaning and house duties before that I was doing it. It is important to have enough of the support system, but I think it was still also a very lonely journey. I will be honest I can share that I think that during the whole time, other than obviously my mom or my sister calling me from overseas, no one came to visit me in the hospital. At that time, I felt quite lonely and I was wondering why is that people not visiting me in the hospital like I’m not really hearing from friends, people would be disappearing, so I felt like quite a lonely journey. But what I learned after that was, I think people didn’t know how to respond. They didn’t know how to speak to me, they didn’t know how to treat me, and one of the things coming out of that, I started speaking up more about it. Every cancer warrior or cancer survivor is different, but at least for me and I think I can speak on behalf of at least some of us. The worst thing you can do is treat someone differently, even they are going through such a tough time, you still want them to feel normal. I tried to do normal things as much as possible, play dates, catching up with girlfriends.

ALT : Throughout the whole thing, you were very normal.

MALISSE : From what you see, obviously when I see people on social media it’s all the normal stuffs, but I mean we still try to do the normal things. We went to the movies, but I just go at 10 in the morning when there is no one, because I can’t risk picking up infection, so I can’t be in crowded places, so it is kind of like MCO or RMCO in that sense. I do food shopping sometimes because I do enjoy that, but I have to pick times to go where it is not so busy, as much as possible I did normal stuffs. I started to understand my pattern, so I can tell when which days I will be okay and which days I won’t. On the days that I am not, I will just sat home, I will try to sleep. I feel bad as a mother that I am not there fully for my daughter, I wasn’t breastfeeding. It was hard, I think it was a lot of the emotional and mental battle that was going on. 

ALT : Your husband is your biggest support throughout the journey.

MALISSE : He was at the time. Financially it was nothing because I am such an independent person, I have had my career, I have my money. Before a year I am not working, and then relying on my husband was also a shock to my system, it is sort of does beat down on your own self esteem. You think like you have been out of the world for like 1 or 2 years, it’s like I have lost my value in the market. It’s just so many things, financially, emotionally, mentally, being a mother, being a wife, your own person. It was just a lot of things that kind of hit you from different angles. I would say it wasn’t just the chemo that I was going through, it was even the recovery after that. I would say like battling with this whole thing mentally emotionally, you are putting on weight because of the steroid that I’m on. I was putting on so much weight and I had the pregnancy weight I was trying to shed as well. I tried to exercise as very hard physically to really pick it up. It was like a yearlong battle, until I started to feel myself again. I got back into work, I started to see people a little bit more. There is no sugarcoating, it is what it is. At the end of the day, it’s really the mindset, I felt that was my mental strength that helped me to pull through more so than like physical or emotional. I decided to change some of my lifestyle habits, I actually started to change the things I was using at home like detergents, anything chemical based, detergents, skin care, soap, shampoo, and all that, and that included my period products, because I use tampons and I use pantyliners. We actually moved it to a more plant-based stuffs, non-chemical, very natural stuffs. When I was talking about period products, I was looking for something that was more organic-based, organic cotton-based. I found that either it’s really expensive here or you have to buy from overseas and they don’t ship here. Either they don’t ship here, or I have to ask my friend, which wasn’t really sustainable long term. That’s where I kind of decided to research a bit more in this space. If you go to a pharmacy or supermarket, you picked up your usual pad brand or your tampon brand, first thing is look at your ingredients, because you will notice that either it won’t tell you what it is made of, or you don’t know what it is talking about, you don’t know what it means. I started reading more into what does the chemicals mean, or why there are no ingredient listed. Period products by the FDA, it is listed as a medical device so legally they don’t actually have to declare what it is made of on the packet. That’s why some of them don’t have the ingredients, and those that have the ingredients you read up all the sulphates, somewhat not actually a lot of chemicals based. There is plastic-based as well, all the packaging you see for period product is all plastic typically, I mean you open it, the individual wrapper and the packaging. For me, I’m always been very inspired about how we can take actions to make this a better planet. I want to teach my children, that is how I kind of got interested and going into the space of period products which is not the most glamorous thing, but I think that there is a big enough problem to solve. I want to have more women to be able to have access to safer and more sustainable period products, because it is something that we used for about 40 years of our life on averages about 11,000 pieces of period products that you used with your body. There are options now with the cup and washables, but not everyone is ready to move over to that yet, so we kind of act this as a bridge, transferring from new generic product to sustainable options. You can open it. This is our night pads.

There are two sizes because we have different flows. But you are petite, for bigger women it is actually like the normal size. We have a customer that wears our night pads “terbalik” from the front because she is very heavy flow on the day so she wears it at the front so as she feels more secure. And I did a lot of research on interview women and survey to understand what women want, that’s why wings are really important, and women want it that is wasn’t bulky which is really thin but it is also very absorbent.

ALT : Everything is biodegradable?

MALISSE : I would say the main term is we use is more natural or sustainable because when you look compostability and biodegradability, they made different things. So, first thing is that with the product itself, you will notice that we use, the top is actually really soft. This is 100% certified organic cotton so we actually have a certified farm that sourced from in Turkey that it actually comes from. So, using organic cotton means its free from pesticide and use less water and its more fair wages when it comes to workers and farmers as well. This is the great part. We don’t use perfumes in our pads, so this is actually a bamboo charcoal strips that will absorb odour and it will inhibit any bacteria growth. Because you are wearing this for 3, 4, 5 hours and it is moist down there, so you want to make sure it doesn’t actually have bacteria growth especially it is touching your vagina, and it is the most sensitive and most absorbent  part of your skin. So, we want to make sure that it is as safe as possible when all women use this. This is our pantyliner.

ALT : This is really thin.

MALISSE : Thin but absorbent. I actually tested it with a baby bottle like you put 150 ml in a baby bottle and you pour, it doesn’t actually leak on the side, it grows upwards a little bit, it absorbs upwards. And then the box itself also we are really proud of because we use 100% certified FSC paper. What that means is that FSC certified comes from sustainable forests. For every tree they cut down, they plant back a new one that is what it means. And also, the ink that we used is soil ink, like vegetable soil ink, we have all sorts of the certification here. Because if we use normal digital laser ink, it is petroleum based so it is actually not really biodegradable. We opted for soil like vegan, vegetables dye based ink. Again, we wanted to have as biodegradable as possible packaging because this is the stuffs that we throw every month, it’s just as much as the pad itself.

ALT : Do you have to package it in a box?

MALISSE : That’s why. Rather than the plastic. So, I mean there is still a lot of innovations that needs to happen when it comes to like bio-packaging, bioplastics somewhat not. For now what we found is a little more feasible is in this kind of paper box, which breakdowns a lot faster. We are constantly innovating the brand and the products, we want to launch new product ranges as well.

ALT : How long has this brand on the market?

MALISSE : Less than a year, it is still quite a baby brand. We do like collaborations and things like that but we are online and offline. I mean the dye can have different colour. When I started doing this, I wanted this to be just very clean and minimalist. It was more targeting women maybe who are 24-44 that generally our target group, who are little bit more mature, little bit more aware of the decisions that they made when they are purchasing things. I am kind of just stuck with the black and white and to be honest it was easier for me that I don’t have to pick so many colours and figure out my colour palettes. Black and white, very simplistic and minimalist. For me, it was just making sure with delivering a safe and sustainable products for women and I am making sure that it was also fairly affordable so we are actually cheaper than other organic cotton brands in the market by about 25-50% but of course with the generic brands that we used to buy will be a little bit different. It is a little bit on investment now but we are hoping that you know obviously as our business grows and scales, we want to make sure that we can access more women. Even if it is not an urban area, it is a more rural area, one of the things that we are working with our corporate and  government in the community to see how we can change education when it comes to periods, menstrual health.

ALT : There is not a lot people that talk about it.

MALISSE : Correct. There is a lot of stigma and taboo, the mindset around periods. We want to change that and educate more about how there are other alternative options whether there are organic cotton based, whether there are reusable is also an another great alternative. In a long run, it is just better for us as women and also for the environment. We have our work cut-out for ourselves, I mean as a brand, we stand very strongly in the line with the 17 UN Sustainable Goals. I am 5 out of the 17 goals was kind of what we are trying to work towards and in our own small way and how we can make an impact. In our own backyard, starting in Malaysia but we plan to go into Singapore and Indonesia.

ALT : Where can people buy it?

MALISSE : We are online and offline in Malaysia as well. We have in Bangsar and Publika, Johor and Kuching, and then will be in Penang soon. We generally deal with speciality stores first that are pushing more sustainable and zero waste lifestyle. But we are going to be on Zalora next month online and PurelyB as well. We talked with other brands as well like Digi because it has a subscription platform like an app and because we offered subscription services so we will be on the Digi platform for their users as well. I mean we are expanding to the different channels right now it is just sort of a way for me to scale and exposure. But, I mean for the most part, women can just easily buy either online or in your local usually like Publika and Bangsar, depending on where you stay. We will expand more in Klang Valley as we are speaking to few more now and definitely wanted to move into Singapore.

ALT : Making better choices, if you have to buy something, buy something that stands for something. By the way, she is one of our narrative speakers as you can tell. Because I think that there is a lot of education that needs to be a little bit more consistent, it cannot be like in just a specific group.

MALISSE : Actually if anything, we are also trying to; one of the goal is how we can have more men involve in the speakers and we have think about it the sigma also lies when men are like ‘Oh, that is the gross thing, it is a women’s problem’. It starts from school, you know how educate like boys are separated from girls. They talk about period or sex health or whatever it is. First thing I think is they shouldn’t separate boys and girls because I think boys one day you will be a father, a brother you know whatever is. So, should be okay for boys to know what is a period and it is okay for him to help his sister to buy pads from supermarket whatever it is if just changing the mindset with the man and we have more male allies then maybe women won’t feel so shameful. I think us as wife, we should be okay to talk our husband about it like if I am having a really bad period cramp, there is something wrong, we should be able to talk to my husband about it because that is not normal to have really bad period cramps. So, the education is something that we are pushing a lot in this brand so we are starting a lot of smaller (because of MCO, RMCO) pop up events. It is to get women comfortable with speaking up and speaking out and then it is hopefully they will be able to spread that in their own sort of circles as well. As a mother to daughters, this is what we have to change for the next generation where it is totally normal to talk about your periods. Even now I talked to my daughter about my period, and she sees all this at home as well she is like ‘mummy what is this’. I mean it is okay I explained to her about period, she knows I’m having a baby now, so understanding a little bit more about how a women’s body works even though they are so young and its okay for them to start knowing it.

ALT : Yes, it is okay like my son knows what is period. He knows, he understands. It begins in the home, I think with us we are little bit more open because of our age group maybe, our generations are a bit more open, it’s not like our grandmothers. I think it is easier than before.

MALISSE : Yes, maybe more urban area. I think in the less urban area there is still a lot of stigma around us as well.  So we do want to break through with some of those less educated area and that is why it is so important for us to work with the right partners like government, corporate, community to kind of reach these groups of women. But at the same time, we also try to be an inclusive brand because I don’t know if you guys have heard this thing: Not all women menstruate and not all menstruators are women. So to explain, not all women have periods, because they choose not to. Women now especially in western countries like the UK, they actually takes certain birth control pills to stop the period currently because it is like so painful of the period and they also made a conscious decision, ‘I don’t want to have children’. So you know, women are changing that their roles to just give babies to the earth. I have a lot of friends decided they actually don’t want to have children. They take birth control pills and they stopped their periods for the rest of their lives. There are some women who don’t menstruate because they choose not to but there are also these transgender. The transgender community where they associate themselves as the opposite sex but they are still menstruating because they still have the reproductive system, they still have a uterus, I mean some cannot afford obviously. There is that community that I think sometimes is easily forgotten, so I think as much as possible we try to be very inclusive and we try not to only just say women too much. I used the word menstruator a lot, we say menstruator, menstrual period we say it as it is because right now if we look at the marketing around the stuff. What do we know this as sanitary pads, feminine hygiene products and I feel that the word sanitary and hygiene already has a negative connotation that this is a dirty thing. Why can’t we just call it as it is, it is just a period product. Just changing the language at permanent school, is another thing that we want to educate because there is a lot of unconscious bias. And unconscious bias is happened for women everywhere not just physically about our body or how we think about ourselves.  Even in the workplace, women think I am not smart enough, I can’t get the promotion, I don’t have enough experiences, I am not worth that salary compared to a man. A man would have 60% of that experience but he will still ask for the promotion ask for the job. You know, women function differently, because we have this unconscious bias in our minds.

ALT : Not in my house. It also started in my own household. We are 3 girls, and my dad has always been very open. He was always like, even though he is the one bringing the money in, he always empowered, he always taught us to.

MALISSE : Your dad is a true feminist.

ALT : I know right, he is so feminist. It is very good in that sense even though I want my daughter to be as strong but I am also worried which is why I hate this word feminist. If you stand up for yourself, you stand up for yourself. You don’t need to be women power. You know what, it got to stop somewhere. It is a bit too much. It is almost as if you need to call yourself, call me pretty call me beauty even though you are not. If you are, you are. You don’t have to. So I think the word you are using is correct, it is not about women menstruating, it is just biology and human nature. It is not so gender specific, it is just facts.

MALISSE: Exactly! To me, it is like how my dad was growing up as a man as a father. He is very equal; it is not about men roles or wife roles. Actually, my dad does all the cleaning and ironing and my mom worked, she had a career.  We are so lucky that we have fathers like that because there are a lot of men out there is not like that. Men and women equality, my husband can cook if he wants to cook, he can iron if he wants to iron, like it is not a women’s place or a women’s job.   

At the end of the day, I think things should just be equal.