Monday, May 11, 2009

Cancer (from a patient's view)

Where to begin? Life has taken sharp left, crashed through the guard rail, and is now free-falling. I was a completely healthy 21 year old with one more semester before graduation. I had just submitted my applications in hopes of entering pharmacy school in the Fall of 2009. Though I was stressed, I had a good, lazy life. In fact, right after finals, I spent an incredible week in Vegas bonding with my close friends from high school. A good life indeed.

Recently, I began noticing a lump. Initially I didn't think much of it. I mean, who would? It's easy to just cruise along when you think you're an indestructible guy-- living it up as at the tender age of 21. The lump began to grow larger and larger and definitely caught my attention. I promised myself that I would head straight to the doctor after my Vegas trip. That's how I always thought--"I'll do that right after this..."

When I returned from Vegas, I went to see my primary doctor. I will never forget the look on his face as he examined the growing mass on me. He immediately stopped the examination and told me I needed to head straight to the emergency department to receive scans. I called up my family and told them what was going on. They went to the emergency room with me, unsure of what was about to unfold; unsure of how our world would be shaken off its foundation. After spending a few hours of waiting for my turn to go under the CT machine (I will save my frustrations from another post), I finally had my first scan of any sort, ever... While my family waited in the waiting room, I couldn't help but wonder how life-changing this scan may be. The culmination of 21+ years of experiences, relationships, thoughts could be changed with one scan.

It took two hours for the radiology department to produce results for the ER doctor. The doctor came into my room and closed the door somberly. I knew this would be a moment I will remember for the rest of my years. He sat down beside me and explained everything: "You have masses all over your abdomenal area. While this may not be malignant, it does not look good. Would you like me to break it to your family?" I sat there stunned, upset, and downright broken. Somehow I gathered the strength to utter, "No, I will tell them." He ushered my family into the room and closed the door as he left. In my 21 years of life, this was the most difficult situation I had ever encountered. Without hesitation, in Taishanese, I told them I might have cancer. My mom and my brother began to cry hysterically. All I could do was shed a stream of tears that enveloped the lower portion of my face. In that moment, I lost everything. All I had were my tears.

I spent the next week in the oncology ward. They performed multiple biopsies to check for malignancy. While I held out hope that the process that was causing these lumps was not cancer, I knew the chances were slim (to none). Around the fourth day in the oncology ward, the doctor, a graduate of my beloved UC Berkeley, came into my shared room and sensitively said, "The reports have shown that your masses are malignant. To make things worse, they are unable to determine what type of cancer you have, which makes creating a treatment plan extremely difficult at this point. However, we will run further tests to figure out the primary for this cancer. I'm sorry." This time I didn't cry. Over the past few days, I prepared myself mentally and emotionally for this moment. I was tired of feeling sorry for myself the day after my initial visit to the ER. I realized that feeling sorry for myself was counter-productive. While I was stranded in the oncology ward for a few more days, I was strangely calm. While my side of the room had no windows, I took walks into the hall and stared out of the sixth floor window at the beautiful San Francisco skyline. Admiring the lush views of the bay and the awe-inspiring buildings of The City, I vowed to myself that if life were to give me one more chance, I would do it right this time. I would take time to appreciate everyone and everything around me.

While this is far from a fairy tale, life actually began to send signs of resurgence. On the day the doctor told me the biopsy reports confirmed that I had cancer, my brother called me after returning home. He said I had received a letter in the mail from UCSF, my dream school. I asked him to open it and to read it to me. Life can be funny and cruel at the same time: I had received an invitation to interview at my dream school. When the future became muggy and despondent, this letter became my glimmer of hope. The interview was scheduled to occur two months from that day. In another slice of bittersweet reality offered by life, my new oncologist came into my room an hour after that phone call. The previous day, he came in and told me, "I don't know what's going on right now. All I know is that you will not die today. You will not die tomorrow. You will not die two months from now." However on the next day, he backed down from that promise after completely reviewing my scans and reviewing the biopsy report. In a very rehearsed fashion, he said, "You will not die today. You will not die tomorrow." What happened to two months from now? Two months! That's when I was scheduled to interview at UCSF! My mind was dashing at 100 miles per hour with no end in sight. Before I was able to let his prognosis sink in, I was again offered a glimmer of hope, "The good news is that we have narrowed your primary down to rectal or anal. We are pretty sure it is most likely rectal cancer." With that statement, I finally had a treatment plan. In one day, I was given two earth-shattering, life-altering realities. I could die within the next two months. Or I will survive and be given a chance to pursue the future I had always imagined for myself--a chance to make good on that vow by the window.

How will this story end or ascend? How will my life unfold or fold? I hope I will be able to share with you my many journeys as I venture on with my so-called life.

Oh! By the way, this is now 5 months, 9 rounds of chemotherapy, 1 UCSF interview, and 1 UCSF acceptance later. My health, my energy, and my view of life are improving. A good life indeed.


  1. Thank you so much for posting. I don't know if you read but last month I posted about my father being diagnosed with rectal cancer

    This post gives me hope. I really look forward to finding out more about your treatment and I'll be updating with more info about my father as his treatment continues, too. Again, thank you, and good luck with everything.

  2. Thank you thank you for sharing. I'm glad to hear that your life is DEFINITELY ASCENDING. Hopefully, I'll see you at UCSF someday, but for now, I'll see you around in SF. ^_^

    It kinda sucks how we're so caught up with things that we constantly put our relationships on backburner. It's when things like this happen that we realize how important they are. I can't wait til I graduate. I really wanna invest more time into people.

  3. Very insightful and inspiring :) I look forward to updates!