Her parents had 10 children - one boy and nine girls. Irene grew up in her family's three-room flat in Holland Avenue. Her siblings and her lived on hand-me-downs and slept on the floor in her living room.
At 25, she tied the knot and has two children, who are now 27 and 25. She also had a stable job and worked as a secretarial support for multinational companies.
Everything was going fine for her until she was diagnosed with cancer at 36. She said: "The thought never even entered my head. I thought I was young and healthy."
She added: "I didn't know how to react. Many thoughts came into my head: Will I die? Will my kids lose their mummy? Will my husband remarry? What did I do to deserve this? I cried bucket."
At that time, her children were only nine and eleven. But Irene told herself that she would not take it as a death sentence. This is where she fought back and she fought back with amazing gusto.
Going through 15-hour operation, 12 sessions of chemotherapy and 30 sessions of radiation took a year, but Irene braved through them all and returned to work thereafter.
Then, she quit her job and decided "to trek up the Everest base camp in Nepal, at an altitude of more than 5,300m".
She said: "I wanted to fulfill a dream I'd for a long time. Since I was done with all the treatments, I decided to do something I hadn't done before." Her husband accompanied her for the 21-day trip.
The trip restored her confidence and hope, and cancer didn't stop her from living her life fully. She challenged life further with her next adventure.
Senior writer Wong Kim Hoh in the article wrote that "encouraged by the Breast Cancer Foundation (BCF), she took up dragon boating...(Irene) took to the sport like a duck to water; she has been the captain of the BCF-PIP for three terms and led them to many regattas and competitions here and abroad."
She said: "It changed my life. It's about teamwork and brings together breast cancer survivors and offers them support. It's tiring but the objective is the finishing line, the light at the end of the tunnel. It's a lot like my own cancer journey."
But this journey took a serious turn when in 2007, Irene found out that she had a gene mutation (BRCA1) that increased her risk of breast cancer by 85%. That was where she decided to remove both her breasts. It was an agonizing decision.
She recalled: "As a woman, losing my breast and my reproductive system was just so hard. Luckily I had an understanding spouse who walked with me."
Irene's marriage is another inspiration.
Being a fighter, she had always made choices to live her life to the fullest. In other words, she had always denied cancer's hold on her, refusing to give in to the dreadedness.
But when her husband was diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma, or cancer of the salivary glands, Irene had to fight with cancer outside of her, that is, cancer that threatened her loved one. It was a fight that took her to a new terrain of struggles since the roles are now reversed.
She said: "From patient, I became caregiver. Actually, he was far better caregiver than I was." Guys, that's love in a word and resilience in another.
Truly, a marriage like Irene's can overcome anything that life throws at her and her husband. They held hands together and joined hearts with family members and friends as her husband "undergo reconstructive surgery and speech therapy."
Irene said that she had lots of support from loved ones, relatives and employers. Her bosses at SAP were very understanding. She said: "I really felt the power of love. I had so many pillars of support."
Sometimes, in life you need people like Irene to nudge you in the right direction, to remind you - who are still in the pink of health - to not take anything for granted.
Her actions spoke so much louder than words. Her life shines through despite the medical setbacks one after another. She may not come in great numbers in this world, but she is still a burning light in one of humanity's darkest tunnels. Such light only needs a few to brighten the world.
And this light never runs out because of the "power of love" in an overcoming life.
Any lesson I have this morning rides completely on her own triumphant words with an amazing life to back them up:-
"I've learnt from my journey and I use my experiences to teach others how to bounce back. I learnt how to let go. It's okay to fail, it's okay not to be perfect, it's okay to lose and cry. But we must also take charge, and continue living with what's in front of us. We must continue to live, love and laugh."
There is no doubt that cancer strikes fear into its patient, but Irene refused to give in to it. It also strikes hopelessness, but Irene transformed it to beaming hope as she put aside her own pain to reach out to others. And it also strikes anger, disappointment and bitterness, but Irene allowed the empowering light of love to guide her steps and to refresh her journey, one agonizing yet determined step at a time.
Every time cancer forced her into what seems like the darkest tunnel at that time of her life, Irene admitted that she may shed tears, but she never shed hope. She may fall and stumble, but she never stayed down. She may be beaten by that unexpected punch, but she always bounced back, that is, stronger even if not more determined to pursue that light at the end of the tunnel.
She said that we must continue to live, love and laugh because I believe cancer casts a long dark shadow on things in front of us. But Irene saw different. She saw even more clearly with cancer than she would ever see without. She saw the love of family, the strength of marriage, the hope of living, the transforming touch of loved ones, and the deep savour of the things we often take for granted.
Indeed, in unsurpassing courage, Irene never took life for grant because she never wastes a cancer. Every trial she confronts open up a refreshing and empowering perspective of living for her.
She saw what's most important, that is, what remains when the riches and fame are gone, and what stays faithful to the very end. For her, love stays faithful to the very end. And because of enduring love, hope, perseverance and joy fill her days, one treasured day at a time.
Indeed, we must continue to live, love and laugh because cancer is not a death sentence. It is a new life, a new birth, and what a life it is when we take nothing for granted, allow love to transform us from within and savour the joy that can never be taken from us.
Irene is a living testament to all that and I am duly and fully nudged on this beautiful Sunday morning. Cheerz.