Friday, October 31, 2008

Cancer Battle Humor

By now, you might be tired of all the cliches about battling cancer, fighting the good fight, discovering the hidden strength within, and so on.

Here's a funny article titled, "Loved Ones Recall Local Man's Cowardly Battle With Cancer". This is from The Onion, a satirical news site.

Have a good laugh!

P.S. Channel 8 here in Singapore has filmed a documentary about me and my fight with cancer. The program is part of a series titled, "In The Face Of Death". It will be in English with Chinese subtitles. Broadcast is next Tuesday, November 4 at 10:30 p.m.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Donate For The Cure

My friend's sister, Deborah, is doing a three-day walk to raise money for "Susan G. Komen for the Cure" and National Philanthropic Trust, which fund breast cancer research, education, screening, and treatment.

If you can donate any amount at all to contribute to Deborah's effort, and more important, the foundation's effort to find a cure for breast cancer, please click HERE.

As I've said before on this blog, I think a cure will be found within the next decade. That's not just idle speculation. My prediction is based on what I've been reading and where I've seen cancer research heading in recent years. In fact, it was two years ago when I predicted this, so there are only eight more years to go. If I could just hold on for eight more years...

Monday, October 27, 2008

Improv Problem-Solving

Imagine this: You're in the kitchen making dinner and your four-year-old son throws a kitchen utensil at you and screams, "I HATE YOU!" Quick. What do you do? (The projectile missed you, by the way, so no first aid needed.)

This happened to a friend of mine. She was going through a divorce and her son wasn't taking it so well. Most of us in this situation would yell and send the kid to his room for a time-out. In earlier times, that kid would have been spanked until his bottom was blue.

But it so happens that my friend does improv comedy for a living. When she found herself facing off against her little ball of anger, she didn't go with the common response. Instead, she turned to her improv skills. She asked herself, "What do I have? What do I need?"

What she had was an incredibly tense situation with a frightened, angry little boy. What she needed was to remove the tension and fear so she could reassure her son that he was loved. She needed to get beyond the behavior and deal with the cause of the behavior.

So she fell down dead. She grabbed her stomach and theatrically reeled around the room gasping for breath and then collapsed on the floor. The heaviness in the room dissolved, her son laughed, and they were able to talk through what had happened.

I've never forgotten this story my friend told me. I use this improv technique myself now.

When I was told after my lung biopsy that it was indeed cancer in my lungs and not an infection, I saw the fear and sadness in Tony's and my friend Michelle's eyes. I asked myself, "What do I have? What do I need?" I had two of the people I loved most in the world scared out of their wits, thinking they were going to lose me. I needed to take the fear and heaviness out of that room. So I cracked a joke and made them laugh. The world seemed right again. We could still laugh.

When Toby throws a tantrum because I won't take him swimming, I ask myself, "What do I have? A little boy who's angry that his mommy can't play with him like she used to. What does he need? Reassurance that his mommy can still do things with him and pay attention to him." So instead of yelling at him, I take him to his room and read books with him - something quiet and physically less strenuous that I can do and that makes Toby feel he has me all to himself.

I recommend you try this yourself. Next time you're faced with a tense, crisis-like situation, stop for a minute and ask yourself, "What do I have? What do I need?" A little improv could improve the way you deal with a crisis.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Cancer Psycho

I recently saw an episode of the TV show, "Desperate Housewives". One of the characters has cancer and has just finished her chemotherapy treatment.

She gets home from the hospital one day and sees that a possum has ruined her garden. She freaks out, buys an air rifle and stands vigil at night, waiting to kill the little critter. When her husband tries to talk her into going back into the house, she screams at him, "This thing has invaded our home! I am NOT going to let it defeat me!" Of course, we all know she's talking about the cancer, not the possum.

This is something I'm not sure everyone surrounding a cancer patient understands. You'd think somebody battling cancer would have bigger things on her mind than a furry animal ruining her garden. But I know exactly why she went pycho about the possum.

I've had similar psycho moments, or moments when I've wanted to scream at somebody. Ants in the house, dishes coming out of the dishwasher with caked-on food still on them, kids running amok with nobody to enforce the rules, and so on. These everyday, seemingly petty things are more disturbing than the big looming threat of death by cancer.

Why? Because cancer is an abstract threat. It's something that I can't really control, so there's no point in throwing a hissy-fit about what those cancer cells are doing inside my body . But making sure my kids are learning to say "please" and "thank you", keeping my house in order so I know where everything is, simply being able to control what goes on under my own roof - these are things that I'm having to let go because I don't have the energy and strength to deal with them most of the time.

I can't drive anymore so I have to depend on the kindness of friends to help me with my errands. Luckily, I have no shortage of friends who are offering all sorts of help so I'm thankful for that at least. But every time I have to ask somebody for a ride to the hospital, every time I see that Toby's teeth or Josie's hair haven't been brushed, every time I see the floor in the kids' room littered with books and clothes with nobody around to reprimand them for it - all of these things are reminders that I'm losing control. I've become a lame-duck mother.

So those of you who are dealing with cancer patients, the next time that patient goes psycho over something that seems petty and meaningless to you, think about the possum.

I can't go after cancer with an air rifle, but I can hunt down a garden pest with one.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Hypocrisy and Expectations

I often write in this blog about ways I try to be a better person. I probably make myself out to be some kind of saint from the looks of the comments and feedback I'm getting from you. But the fact is, I fall short of being the generous, open-minded, patient, perfect mother and wife you might think I am from reading my blog.

I think you'd all agree that you, too, believe in being kind-hearted, tolerant, caring, and a walking repository of the values and traits we want our kids to have. But do you always live what you preach? Do you always walk the talk? Of course not. Does that make us all hypocrites?

I knew a guy who was in a position of power and influence. What he said affected the way people made their decisions and lived their lives. To my great disappointment, one day he showed himself to be a weak, spiteful, selfish, and childish character - the direct opposite of the facade he'd been putting on for the people who looked up to him. I wrote him off as a huge hypocrite and felt nothing but contempt and disappointment toward him.

Then I asked myself why I was so disappointed. Was it because I actually expected him to be perfect? Did I really believe he was the pillar of virtues he preached to others? Who was I kidding?

I think when it comes to living the virtues we aspire to in ourselves, we're all hypocrites to a certain extent. Actually, "hypocrite" is the wrong word. I think what we do is set up expectations of ourselves and others. I'd like to be a patient, kind-hearted, forgiving, generous person. I talk about these virtues to my kids and I talk about them in my blog. I try to live them, but I often fail. But then I try the next time. And the next time. I try because I have expectations that I can be the person I want to be.

I think we all have an idea of the kind of person we want to be and we succeed and fail in turns. When we fail to practice what we preach, we're not necessarily being hypocrites. We're falling short of the expectations we've set for ourselves. It's when we start lowering those expectations or stop having expectations altogether that we should start worrying.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Best Mommy Award

The other night, I was tucking Toby and Josie into bed for a second time. I have a routine. I tuck the kids into bed at their bedtime, and then I go back in before I go to bed to tuck them in again, cuddle them, kiss them, and whisper "I love you" to them.

I put my mouth to Josie's ear and whispered the usual promises of love that I always do to Josie and her brother. She usually just turns over in her sleep and that's all. But this time, she turned over and mumbled in her sleep, "You're the best mommy in the world."

I've sometimes imagined what it would feel like to win an Oscar. I'd win one for best original screenplay - a film that would be ground-breaking in its genre and eye-opening in changing the way people think. I imagined I'd walk up on stage in front of all those people and millions of TV viewers and say two words: Thank you. And then just walk off. So terribly cool and minimalist.

But winning an Oscar couldn't possibly feel as good as the Best Mommy Award I got from Josie the other night. And unlike an Oscar, which is bestowed upon the winner by a panel of judges who really mean nothing to the winner personally, my award came from the only person (other than Toby) who's qualified to give it and the only person whose judgement really matters to me.

So I accepted my award and whispered back to Josie, "Thank you."

Friday, October 17, 2008

Chemo Fun

I had the best chemo session ever two days ago.

First, the facts. I had my second cycle of the Avastin + Ixempra combination. Before the treatment, I went over my test results with my doctor. The chest X-ray showed some improvement, with a bit less opacity ("ground glass") in the lungs and a bit less fluid in the lining of the lungs (pleural effusion) than in the previous X-ray of September 22. My tumor markers were better, with two of them going down and one of them increasing by just a little.

Overall, pretty good results - enough to believe this chemo combination is working and we should stay on course. According to my doctor, I've been feeling weak, tired, and breathless lately because my steroid dosage has been lowered, not because my cancer is getting worse. So that's good news.

As for why this last chemo session was the best I've ever had... Tony left work early, picked Josie up from school and brought her over to see me at the chemo clinic. Josie climbed into bed with me and we shared some food together. We made a tent over our heads with the blanket so we could hide under there and tell secrets to each other. I had so much fun just sitting and chatting with her, hugging and snuggling her. It didn't matter that I was hooked up to an oxygen machine and had an IV drip pumping chemo drugs into my body.

We giggled and laughed and told each other stories. It takes so little to make a kid happy. And even less to make that kid's mom happy.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Freshman Philosopher

When I was in college (that's university to you non-Americans), I took enough philosophy courses to think I had the world and the people in it all figured out.

I decided there were two types of people in the world:

1) People who were blissfully ignorant of "the truth", whatever that was, and therefore happy.

2) People who were smart enough to see the darkness of mankind and futility of life, and therefore in constant angst.

I'd put the bimbos and dumb jocks in the first category, but there were also just plain happy people who enjoyed a sunny day and smiled when they passed a stranger on the street.

In the second category were people such as Sylvia Plath and other suicidal, psycho-suffering artist types. In college, these were the kids who wore all black, pierced odd body parts, and refused to smile except to mock you for smiling at a sunny day.

Philosophers, artists, poets, and other thinkers throughout history have perpetuated this theme over and over again - that if you truly understood the human condition and our role in the universe, you could not be content. In other words, we're either happy idiots or miserable geniuses.

Now that I'm older, wiser, and have learned to see those artists and thinkers as pessimists who just want company in their misery, I've come up with a third category:

People who are smart enough to see the darkness in the world, get over it, and try to create an oasis of happiness in that darkness.

I think that applies to a lot of things, big and small, in our lives. Your husband forgot your anniversary... again? Get over it. Find something else about him to be happy about. You lost your job? Get over it. Look for another one. Have cancer? Get over it. Find a way to live with it and do the best you can for the people around you.

You don't have to be a happy idiot or a miserable genius. Mix it up a little. Be a happy genius.

Monday, October 13, 2008


Tony and I had a parent-teacher conference with Josie's teacher last week. At the end of the meeting, I asked her teacher what made Josie stand out from the other kids. Her answer? Josie's inner strength. She said that Josie was confident and independent. If somebody teased her, she wouldn't crawl under a table to cry; she'd just go off and do her own thing.

I was so proud. If there's anything about my personality I want Josie to inherit, it's inner strength and self-confidence. I think these traits are especially important for a girl, and probably even more so for a girl growing up without a mother.

Think about yourself. Which of your personality traits would you like your kids to inherit and which would you rather they didn't have?

Friday, October 10, 2008

Going Part-Time

I said back in May that I'd treat this blog like a job and post every day, Monday to Friday. I've decided now to go part-time, so from now on I'll only be posting on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

I also promised I'd post your comments and my responses to them within 24 hours. I can't promise that anymore, so I'll just do the best I can. If you don't see your comment posted, it's not because I've rejected it; it's because I haven't gotten to it yet. Please be patient with me. You have all the time in the world. I don't! ; )

I know this is cheating a bit, but this is my entry for today! Have a good weekend!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Me And My Blog

I was walking through a parking lot recently when a woman stopped her car, rolled down her window, and asked me if I were the "woman with the blog". It turned out she was the mother of one of Josie's former classmates. She said she'd been reading my blog and found it inspiring and helpful. I was surprised and flattered by the recognition and praise - almost like a celebrity, I thought.

Then later on that same day, a friend who's a radiation oncologist told me he thought I might have helped a hundred of his future patients because through my blog, I've helped make him a better doctor. Wow.

After I came down from the clouds, I thought about the impact my blog might be having on people. A number of readers have told me they find my blog interesting, inspiring, thought-provoking, and I dare to believe it. But I can see that I've put myself in a special position.

People are interested in what I have to say because I have cancer and might die soon. I've found myself an audience of folks who are curious about the insights or ravings of a dying woman because that's something we rarely get to see.

Through my blog, I get to show people what's on my mind. That doesn't make my thoughts any more thoughtful or my insights any more insightful than anything anybody else has to say. It's just that what I have to say is more interesting because I'm facing death and because this new literary form - this cross between a private diary and a public essay - allows me to ramble on about whatever's on my mind.

I have to remind myself to stay out of those clouds. But it's hard not to be deeply flattered by the kind of feedback I've been getting. So thank you. You're making me feel like I'm spending some of my remaining time wisely.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Personal Bubbles

You know those speech bubbles cartoon characters have to tell us what they're saying? What if we all had bubbles over our heads to tell people what we're thinking, feeling, or experiencing?

Sometime last year, I was undergoing chemotherapy, but that particular chemo drug didn't make my hair fall out, I had hardly any side-effects, and I was very strong and full of energy. So nobody could tell I had cancer.

One evening, I went for a run around the lake near my house and imagined a bubble over my head that read, "I have advanced-stage cancer, just had chemotherapy a few hours ago, and now I'm doing a 12-kilometer run. Yay me!"

To anybody else, there was nothing special about me. I was just another runner getting her exercise. But I was proud of myself for being out there. I'd only taken up running after my cancer diagnosis, and it was part of my plan, along with my ultra-strict diet, to fight cancer with every weapon I had. That's why I was so proud of myself. I wasn't going to let cancer beat me and I wasn't going to just leave it to doctors; I was an active participant in fighting my cancer.

Of course, nobody could know any of this just by looking at me. Then I started to think about all the others I saw out there on the running track. I imagined their personal thought bubbles and what they would say.

I saw a man in his 60s who looked quite fit and determined. I imagined his bubble saying, "I may be getting old, but I'm going to do all I can to keep my body fit. I'm healthier and happier than most men half my age!" I saw an attractive woman in her 20s who stared straight ahead, jaws clenched, sweating and pushing herself hard. I saw her bubble saying, "I can do anything I want to do. I'm stronger and smarter than most men I know. They think I'm just a pretty face, but I can kick their butts in just about anything!"

I saw an overweight man in his 40s with a big belly, moving quite slowly, almost toddling along. His bubble said, "I'd rather be eating noodles right now, but if I don't get myself healthy, I'm going to leave my kids without a father or worse, with a father they can't respect." Another man in his 30s was running hard and looking angry. I pictured his bubble saying, "I don't want a divorce but I don't know how to make her happy and she won't give me a chance. I'm going to lose her and I don't know what to do about it. What can I do? How can I stop this?"

It was just a game to counter the monotony of running around the lake, but maybe we should all try this once in a while. We all have stories and experiences that make us who we are. We can't know everyone's story, especially those of strangers, but simply imagining stories for them might help us look at them as real people rather than 2-dimensional cartoon characters.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Vote For A Good Cause

People always complain about corporate greed. Well, here's something you can do to help channel that corporate stash of cash toward some good causes, and it won't cost you a penny.

American Express is giving US$2.5 million in funding to five organizations to carry out projects such as providing food to malnourished children and offering microloans in underdeveloped countries.

American Express "Members Project" will divide the money among the five organizations, based on AmEx card member votes.

My friend's employer, International Medical Corp (IMC), is one of the five finalists up for this funding, so I might be a bit partial to IMC, but the other four finalists are also good causes.

If you're a legal resident of the U.S. and have an AmEx card issued by American Express in the U.S., you're eligible to vote. You have until October 13.

To vote, click HERE.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Looking The Part

We've all seen terminally ill patients in movies or TV dramas. They're frail, thin, often bald. They're on pill schedules. They're in bed most of the time, and when they do get out, they walk slowly, holding on to the arm of a nurse or a visiting friend.

I'm not quite sure when it happened, but I think I've become that person. I don't really feel like that person, but I've realized recently that I don't look so great. I seem sicker to people around me than I thought I did.

I've been coughing a bit and have had some bouts of breathlessness, but I keep thinking it's a brief, temporary setback and if I just take it easy for a day or so, I'll be back to normal.

But I haven't been out of the house much for the past several weeks other than for doctors' appointments, and I haven't had the energy to do what I usually do with my days. I used to walk Toby to and from school. He started school six weeks ago and I haven't felt strong enough yet to walk the five or so blocks to school with him. Some days, I don't even feel strong enough to meet Josie's school bus at the entrance to our condominium.

I'm on the oxygen machine several hours a day and take naps most days. I sometimes have my meals brought to me in bed so I can stay hooked up to the oxygen machine while I eat. It's actually kind of nice. It's like having room service.

My condition is inconsistent, though. One day, I feel well enough to go out for dinner with friends or even a trip to the shopping mall. The next day, I walk out to the playground to watch the kids play and suddenly can't breathe or walk the 50 meters back to the house.

I'm still not ready to believe this is a permanent condition, though. I think we just need to wait until the chemo does its job. It's just taking a bit longer this time. Meanwhile, I'll enjoy the perks that come with being that sick person from the movies - like having people wait on me hand and foot and watching trash TV while eating meals delivered to me in bed.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Tell Me About You

I'd like to hear from those of you who lost your mothers when you were young. I need some insight into what Toby and Josie might be facing in the years ahead and what I can do now to help them.

Can you tell me what you remember about your mother's death and the days or weeks leading up to it? Can you tell me how you were told that your mother had died? Were you allowed to go see her? How old were you? How did you feel?

Tell me what you remember about your mother - what images, events, smells stand out in your mind.

Tell me what you'd most like to say to her or do with her now if she could come back to life for a brief moment.

Tell me anything you can that might help me, Josie, and Toby.

If you don't feel comfortable commenting publicly on this blog, please send your stories to By the way, if you comment on my blog as "Anonymous", even I can't see who you are. So feel free to post your comment as "Anonymous", since your stories and advice might be helpful to other cancer patients as well as to me.

Thanks so much.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Christians and Satan

A blog reader wrote:

"I am not here to comment anything. I am just here to share with you something which you will never believe. We had a healing session during the Africa Pastor stay here. One of the person heal was a medical Doctor who was also diagnosed with cancer. Imangie a Medical Doctor herself had given hope on her condition came by faith to receive healing AND WAS HEALED COMPLETELY INSTANTLY!!!

Well I just like to share with you this is because I really felt that you are really been blind by the Satan.

In the bible [John 10:10 state :- The thieft (which is Satan) comes only to STEAL & KILL & DESTROY; I (which is Jesus) had come that they may have life, and have it to the full.]

Anyway sister, I do not know you but I pray that you will open up your heart to Jesus and allow him to come and touch you. Sister, I am not here to convert you or anything.

That's all I want to share. But before I end I would like to tell you that not because satan is more powerful then God, so all this happen. It is because we had all fallshort to the glory of God & allow satan to come into our life.

Sister, I encourage you to give yourself a chance to encounter Jesus."

Here is my response:

I'd love to have the name of the doctor who was cured and see all her medical records. "Cured instantly" is not possible.

I, too, was "cured" twice and both times, extensive tests (including surgery and PET/CT scans) showed that I had no more cancer in my body. Each time, the cancer came back, but it took months to do so. You'd have to run tests to see if the cancer is truly gone before you can make that medical judgement and even then, there's no guarantee that the cancer won't come back. So there's no such thing as "cured instantly".

Unlike the doctor you mention, I have not given up hope on my condition. There is always hope. I'll die when I die and not before. Until then, there will always be hope. That has nothing to do with God. That has to do with me and my faith in the possibility of good things happening, no matter what.

I'm quite disturbed by what you say about Satan. You say that I do not believe in Jesus or God because I've been blinded by Satan. First of all, the logical progression of what you say suggests that if Satan can actually prevent me from accepting Jesus, then Satan is indeed more powerful than God.

Second, attributing my lack of belief in God to Satan's power takes away the free will that God supposedly gave mankind. If God gave me free will, then I can't say it's Satan's fault that I commit sin or don't believe in God. It's my own choice. The Bible is full of such contradictions that I don't think can or need to be reconciled in order to believe or not believe in God. Why? Because I believe the Bible was written by men - men with flaws and their own self-serving agendas.

I don't believe in Satan. I'm more willing to believe in the existence of God than in the existence of Satan. That is, I'm more willing to believe in the existence of a benevolent, loving being, than in an evil one.

I've seen manifestations of evil in the world, but I don't believe evil is as powerful as the good in humanity. And I'm constantly disappointed and surprised that anybody who would believe in the existence of an all-loving, all-powerful God would allow such darkness to enter their minds and hearts.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Adult Me, Meet Child Me

When I was five years old and living in Korea, I was a bit of a problem child. Apparently, I was disobedient, annoying, and disruptive in school.

In those days in Korea, each class had a president and a vice president. The president was always a boy and the vice president was always a girl - the smartest boy and the smartest girl in the class.

In my kindergarten class, I was vice president. I said I should be president because I was smarter than the boy. My teacher said I couldn't, because only boys could be president. I was only five years old, but even then, I knew there was something rotten about this so I kicked up a fuss.

I'm not sure what happened in the end - whether they changed the rules and let me be class president (I doubt it), but I love this story about me because I'm proud that even at the age of five, I was confident enough to speak up when I thought something was unfair.

This brings me to some unsolicited advice I'd like to offer if you're a parent.

Keep a journal for each of your kids and write stories about them as they grow up. I've been doing this for Toby and Josie since they were born, and I think this is the best gift I could give my kids because it shows them how much I cherished the people they were and how much their everyday lives and antics meant to me. And it helps them to know themselves.

I wrote to Josie about a time when she was about one year old. We were in a shopping mall and there was a girl slightly older than her, crying. Josie toddled up to this little girl and put her arms around her. When Josie's an adult, she'll read this story and be proud of the child she was and the kind heart she had, even as a one-year-old.

I wrote to Toby about his habit of grabbing my face in his two hands and asking, "Mommy! You happy?" When he reads about that as an adult, he'll see what a caring child he was and how much his mother's happiness meant to him.

The point to all this is... as adults, we sometimes doubt ourselves, feel inadequate, unloved, or undeserving of love. At those times, a peek into our childhood to meet the person we once were and can still be, might be a good way to reintroduce ourselves to us and learn to appreciate ourselves a bit more.