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A Driving Force: Three women’s personal journeys with cancer

A survivor, a wife, a daughter. We trace the journeys of three women, each affected by cancer in their own way.

Doris Leung is the archetypal Hong Kong career woman. She’s self-motivated and ambitious, conscientious and incredibly focused. So focused, in fact, that she rarely stops to take a breath. Or, at least, that’s how she used to be.

“I loved to work. I didn’t marry, I have no children,” says Doris, as her father passes her a cup of healing peanut skin tea (thought to boost blood platelet counts). We’re in Leung’s family’s home in Tsuen Wan, where she has spent the last year battling breast cancer. “My lifestyle was all about taking care of my business – 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Even when I [went to bed], my brain couldn’t switch off.”

For 16 years, Leung worked as an i-Cable news reporter, covering the plight of minorities in Hong Kong. Through her work, she gave a voice to the disenfranchised. Then in 2006, her mother developed brain cancer and their world changed.

“I watched my mum become more impaired day after day. Finally, she became permanently disabled and had to use a wheelchair,” she recalls. “Getting around was challenging.” Leung researched barrier-free transport services but found the options underwhelming, typically costing three times more than a usual taxi and operating without insurance protection for riders.

The absence of quality services motivated Doris to find a solution. While both Doris and her father cared for her mum, Doris worked double-time to bring the idea to life. “I hoped my mum’s life would be fulfilled after seeing Diamond Cab on the road,” says Doris. In 2011, she officially introduced the city’s first wheelchair-accessible taxis. Her mum joined the launch event to celebrate. “She was like a VIP,” recalls Doris with a smile.

In June 2012, her mum passed away. Afterwards, Doris worked on Diamond Cab night and day. “The business was always on my mind – it was my baby,” says Doris. “I worried about drivers getting sick, losing advertising contracts, car maintenance …  I just felt this heavy responsibility on my shoulders and didn’t know how to seek help. Since I founded Diamond Cab, I was like a car without brakes.”

While Doris worked around the clock, her health began to falter. In 2016, she was diagnosed with a benign tumour in her right breast, while also suffering from headaches and fatigue. Then things got worse. “One day while I was in the shower, I noticed that my left nipple was drooping. I knew that something must be happening inside the breast, to make the nipple contract.”

Doris immediately booked an ultrasound and mammogram, which confirmed what she feared: she had breast cancer.

“After the tests [it finally hit me] that I am a cancer patient. But I didn’t panic. I had some preparation because I have very good friends who have had breast cancer,” says Doris.

At the advice of her ‘breast cancer sisters’, she scheduled an appointment with Dr Polly Cheung, founder of the Hong Kong Breast Cancer Foundation, at her clinic. A PET scan, followed by a biopsy, revealed that the cancer was already at stage 3, with one 9-centimetre-wide tumour in her left breast and multiple lumps in her left armpit.

Since Doris had good health insurance, which she arranged herself, a breast cancer sister encouraged her to arrange chemotherapy at a private clinic as soon as possible, rather than wait for up to six weeks at a public facility. She did, but not before making another difficult decision: stepping down from Diamond Cab. “I knew I had to focus on my treatment. I knew I had to learn to let go,” she says.

In the meantime, Doris found an acting CEO to take care of the company through her treatment regimen. Her oncologist prescribed six rounds of Taxol and Carboplatin injections – a common chemotherapy regimen usually given for localised breast cancers – across the next three months, with an aim to shrink the tumours and make it easier to operate. 

“I was really lucky,” says Doris. “After just one dosage, my nipple rebounded, and the breast softened again. I also didn’t have many side effects; just some itchy rashes on my skin.”

The tumours’ density improved, as did Doris’s [white blood cell count. By all measures, the treatment was working. “Chemo doesn’t work on everyone. But in my case, it shrunk my main tumour [in her breast] and kept the cancer from spreading elsewhere in my body.”

Toward the end of the regimen, Doris’s hair started to fall out. She didn’t feel sad or ashamed. On the contrary, her new appearance sparked an idea to spread a message to women with cancer.

“A lot of women are very upset about losing their hair. That seems like a sad way to look at it, to feel like you have to hide under a wig. I wanted to change perceptions,” says Doris. “My good friends and I came up with an idea to do a photo campaign, so that we could flip this notion: Bald isn’t ugly. Bald is beautiful.”

A few local news agencies, including Ming Pao, covered the campaign, which depicts Doris and several friends proudly displaying their bald heads, with the Hong Kong skyline as a backdrop. “On the side of my head, you can see a tattoo. It says ‘let go’, which is a reference to Diamond Cab. I had to let go of the company to get healthy.”

Following chemo, Doris had a mastectomy to remove the tumour in her breast, then another round of chemo to address remaining lumps in her armpit.

There were some serious considerations regarding breast reconstruction surgery. In the end, Doris decided to undergo a full reconstruction. Doctors took muscle and fat from her lower abdomen and relocated it to her breast. “It’s a big surgery, lasting about four to six hours,” explains Doris. “But they connect the nerves and blood vessels, so you have feeling in your breast. It’s incredible.” 

Bald is beautiful.

Doris Leung

The operation alone cost roughly HK$400,000 and, thankfully, was fully covered by her insurance. During her recovery, Doris couldn’t lift her arms, which made showering and getting dressed particularly challenging. After a few weeks of rehabilitation exercises her condition improved. “When I first got home from surgery, that’s when I cried the most. I imagined that I wouldn’t be able to lift up my arm for the rest of my life. It made me think of my mum, and how much she suffered.” 

Eventually, Doris regained her normal range of motion, but she started experiencing painful side effects, such as seroma – essentially water accumulation under her armpits. “It was like having a char siu bao stuck right here,” she says jokingly, pointing to her underarm. “After Dr Cheung drained it with a needle, she said, ‘Look, now it’s just a siu mai.’ It felt so much better.”

Although the first round of chemotherapy had slowed the growth rate of the remaining lumps in her armpits, the cancer was still in her lymph nodes. Doris prepared for a second round of chemo, this time with four injections of Adriamycin Cytoxan at two-to three-week intervals. She finished last April, followed almost immediately by 25 sessions of radiotherapy throughout May.

“I was really worried that I’d be isolated,” she recalls. “I love interacting with people, talking to others. But I couldn’t go out much because it was too dangerous [due to the risk of infection]. It felt like a prison.”

Doris found a healthy outlet through Facebook. She started documenting her journey on the platform, sharing informative, honest and often humorous posts. “No one really talks about breast cancer in depth… the best diet, surgery options, dialogues with doctors, insurance… I feel like I’m sharing something useful with others.”  

It resonated. Her “bald is beautiful” campaign, for example, garnered more than 200,000 views. While Doris found a productive way to channel her pent-up energy, she crept closer to the finish line. In July 2018, she embarked on the last step in her treatment programme: oral chemotherapy. She took eight cycles in total – one every three weeks. It has been her most difficult treatment yet. 

“[The oral chemo] has been really hard for me. I developed hand-foot-syndrome [a side effect of chemo], so my feet are really red, dry and swollen,” she says, pulling down her sock to reveal a patch of flaky skin, so red it looks as if it’d be hot to touch. “Sometimes, I can’t go out without a walker to support me, because my feet hurt so much.”

In February, Doris started her last round of oral chemo. And as her treatment comes to a close, she’s been reflecting on her journey. “I think it’s very meaningful to talk about my change,” says Doris. “I didn’t know how to stop before, but now I understand what’s really important.”

To that end, she’s made a series of pivotal shifts in her lifestyle. Now, she follows a plant-heavy diet, eats less meat, eschews dairy (research shows that foods containing hormones, like dairy, are considered a cancer risk), tries to get at least eight hours of sleep per night, and has drastically reduced the amount of stress in her life.

Doris Leung says "bald is beautiful".
Doris Leung says “bald is beautiful”.

As our conversation draws to an end, she suddenly stands up and walks to the fridge, pulling out a bright green chayote (also known as Buddha’s Hand). “This is my spiritual support,” she says, cradling the gourd between her hands. “I rented a small plot on a little farm in Chuen Lung as a birthday gift for myself last year. It’s not very big, but it’s very valuable to me. When I am gardening, I feel so happy. I can feel the sunshine, birds chirping, fresh air… everything I missed out on for so long.” Gardening, she says, is now a non-negotiable appointment on her agenda.

After more than a year of treatments, Doris was declared cancer-free in January 2019. This spring, she has reconnected with her business partners to restructure Diamond Cab and create a pathway for her to ease back into work. 

“I need to maintain these healthy pillars in my life,” says Doris. “This experience has been very meaningful for me. You don’t realise how important it is to take care of yourself, to take a rest… until it’s a matter of life and death.” 

An Unexpected Journey

When Chelsea Wong met her husband Joshua for the first time on New Year’s Eve in 2008, she had no idea what the future would hold. Though the pair didn’t start dating right away, they crossed paths again a few years later at their church and the rest, as they say, is history.

“When he walks into a room, you can feel his energy, you feed off of it. He’s a talented musician and filmmaker who is so passionate about his work. But the most amazing thing about Joshua is that he cares about people so much. And that was really attractive to me,” she recalls with a smile, while petting their puppy in the couple’s Tin Hau apartment.

After a year of dating, the couple married in 2013. Shortly after, Joshua’s health started to waver. To Joshua, it was nothing new: For more than a decade, he had been experiencing inexplicable physical ailments that went untreated despite consulting many specialists.

“He would wake up in the morning and a different part of his body would be swollen. Doctors tested him for Lyme disease, gout, arthritis… He went to various experts and they all said he was fine. We didn’t know who to turn to.”

Doris at her urban farm in Chuen Lung
Doris at her urban farm in Chuen Lung

A few years into the marriage, his condition deteriorated. He began experiencing debilitating headaches and a throbbing pressure behind his right eye. Joshua visited two ophthalmologists, one neurologist, and two optometrists – nothing worked.

Last March, just as Joshua turned 40, the situation took a dire turn. “He turned to me one day and his eye was really swollen; it was bulging out,” recalls Chelsea. Alarmed, they booked an appointment at Dr Lauren Bramley and Partners, a private clinic in Central.

The doctors ordered a CT scan, which revealed a 4-centimetre-wide tumour in his lacrimal gland (the tear duct). It was so big that it was pressing against his dura mater (the protective covering of the brain) and eating away at the bones around his eye and nose. 

The clinic transferred him to a specialist in Central, Dr Jane Yeung, who ordered an MRI to gather more information. Meanwhile, Joshua’s sister, also a doctor, sought out a second opinion in the public system. At the recommendation of Dr Yeung, the pair visited Prince of Wales Hospital in Sha Tin for a biopsy to determine whether the tumour was malignant or benign.

Despite one in 10 million odds, Joshua was officially diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma (ACC) in March. Though Joshua’s earlier issues, such as swelling and pain, didn’t have anything to do with ACC, the couple believes it was an early sign that his body was unbalanced and something deeper was going on.

“I think we both kind of went numb when they told us. You hear ‘cancer,’ and there’s this disconnect,” Chelsea recalls. “It just wouldn’t register in our minds. Neither of us were emotional at the beginning. We just took action right away.”  

The couple turned to a good friend, Leora Caylor, who is an integrative oncology patient advocate and nutritional therapy consultant. “She’s really knowledgeable about cancer, so she was the first person we told. She helped us get into the mindset of taking control of the situation.”

Caylor recommended various supplements, books, and dietary changes to get the couple on the right track. “We immediately changed his diet to keto (a low-carb, high-fat diet). It’s supposed to be highly beneficial for cancers in the head and brain.” In addition, Caylor recommended The Metabolic Approach to Cancer, a book that looks at the disease as a whole. “That book was really helpful for us to understand what cancer really is and why it happens.”

Joshua and Chelsea at their Tin Hau apartment.
Joshua and Chelsea at their Tin Hau apartment.

While adjusting to a new reality at home, Chelsea received another shock: Just three weeks after Joshua’s diagnosis, her dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer. “The lowest point for me was the night my dad told me he was sick as well,” recalls Chelsea. “I was angry in my soul, at a really visceral level. I felt personally attacked. The two most important men in my life and I might lose them both?”

But there was no time to grieve. A team of doctors encouraged Joshua to start his treatment path as soon as possible. ACC is usually unresponsive to chemotherapy, so Joshua would need to have surgery immediately, followed by high-dose radiation.

At first, Joshua’s doctors planned to remove the entire eye orbit – including part of the nose, the whole eyeball and part of the dura, which protects the brain. This would leave Joshua deformed for the rest of his life. But the family questioned the decision: “Since he would have to get radiation after the surgery anyway [to kill remaining cancer cells], why did he have to lose the entire orbit? Why not remove the tumour only?”

The doctors back-pedaled, agreeing to focus on the tumour and, within a few days, Joshua went into the eight-hour surgery. “It all felt so rushed, as if we had to make a decision right that second,” says Chelsea. “We wish we took some time and got second opinions. You want to trust your doctors, but that wasn’t the case for us.”  

The surgeons removed as much of the tumour as possible. In the process, they also had to remove the muscle that opens and closes the eyelid, leaving Joshua with double-vision in one eye. “He can still see, but it’s blurry so he wears a patch,” says Chelsea. “He’s one of the only people I know who could pull off a badass eye patch.”

After the surgery, an oncologist within their team of doctors insisted that Joshua needed to undergo another surgery to remove the entire orbit as originally planned. The procedure, he said, would be the safest way to remove any margins and prevent the disease from spreading further.

“The communication between our [medical] teams wasn’t good. It was scary, and we didn’t feel supported,” Chelsea recalls. “He still had a drain in his head from the first surgery. He was sitting in the hospital room, just shivering from anxiety and stress. We were putting jackets and blankets on him, holding him. When they talked about taking out the whole side of his face… he was so devastated.”

By then, the couple no longer trusted the doctors’ advice. Chelsea joined a Facebook group for patients and supporters of those with ACC, in search of more treatment options. This group proved to be an invaluable source of advice, information and support for the couple throughout the remainder of their journey. And it was in this informative group where they found the treatment that would eventually save Joshua’s life.

“A lot of people suggested proton radiotherapy. It’s a very targeted beam of radiation [that goes straight into the affected tissue], which is exactly what you need for ACC,” says Chelsea.

When Dr Liebsch performed an MRI of Joshua’s head, they discovered a piece of metal… He was lucky to be alive: Introducing metal anywhere near an MRI machine… could have ripped the metal out of Joshua’s head.

A member of the Facebook group recommended Dr Norbert Liebsch at General Hospital (MGH) in Boston, Massachusetts, as the foremost expert in the field. The couple raced to reach out, knowing this therapy could be a game changer. An assistant passed them to Dr Liebsch’s voicemail and they left a message. At 10pm Eastern time, that same day, the doctor called back and asked Joshua to send his reports. After reviewing the case, Dr Liebsch invited them to come to Boston.

The couple flew to Boston where they stayed for three months. But before Joshua could start his therapy, yet another surprise was in store: “When Dr Liebsch performed an MRI of Joshua’s head, they discovered a piece of metal.”

At first, the doctors expected to find something minute, like the tip of a needle. They scheduled a surgery, to be sure. Upon opening Joshua’s skull, Dr Liebsch found the tip of drill bit, which the couple says could only have come from the previous surgery in Hong Kong.  Everyone was stunned. Joshua had two MRIs just weeks before. He was lucky to be alive: Introducing metal anywhere near an MRI machine, which harnesses magnetic fields that are 1,000 times the strength of a standard household magnet, has been known to cause serious accidents and deaths. Once switched on, the machine could have ripped the metal out of Joshua’s head.

Despite the shock of this discovery, the surgery’s timing was a small blessing for the family. At the same time, Chelsea’s father was recovering from his own surgery in Saskatchewan, Canada, so the couple travelled there to be together while both men healed.

The following week, the couple returned to Boston to finally start Joshua’s proton radiotherapy. Across the next eight weeks, Joshua underwent 40 rounds of radiation to eliminate the remaining tumour. This method greatly reduces the unnecessary radiation to healthy tissues, bones and organs, thus reducing side effects.

While Joshua’s critical illness insurance covered his care in Hong Kong, it didn’t make a dent in the notoriously expensive US medical system. The couple says they felt impossibly lucky, as countless people came out of the woodwork to bless, love, and support them. “It was really incredible. So many people helped us,” recalls Chelsea. “And, I mean, you put money away for a rainy day. This is a rainy day. It was a no brainer. This was the best shot we had.”

While Joshua underwent radiation, Chelsea tried to establish her own routine in Boston. A professional fitness instructor, she exercised frequently, taught barre (a fitness style that combines elements of ballet with Pilates, flexibility and cardio), and met up with friends whenever possible.

“I realised that I needed to still be my own person and take care of myself; it was important for me to not to let it consume me and take over my life,” she says. “I had to figure things out. Sometimes, mostly at the beginning when we just got the diagnosis, I would schedule times to cry. I’d say, okay, that’s my time to grieve.”   

Joshua says the most powerful thing about having Chelsea by his side was that she never treated him as a cancer patient. She encouraged him to stay strong, both mentally and physically. He continued to cook for himself – if not both of them – managed his keto diet, and remained highly productive throughout his treatment regime. They continued to pursue life together, despite the difficult situation.

Joshua Wong during proton radiotherapy in Boston, Massachusetts.
Joshua Wong during proton radiotherapy in Boston, Massachusetts.

“Chelsea saw me as a person who was going through a tough season but was still strong, and she empowered that part of me,” recalls Joshua. “I never felt weak because she never let me, despite allowing me to grieve or [feel down].”

The couple found a strength in themselves, and in each other, through the experience. “Too often people see pain as a bad thing, when it’s actually an opportunity to persevere and grow. We weren’t going to let pain and sickness rule our lives, we wanted to maintain control of our choices and [chose to] cling to growth, over sickness,” says Josh.

After finishing his radiation regime, Joshua and Chelsea had to wait six months for the results. In the meantime, they gathered a few friends and went skydiving – Joshua’s “F*** you to cancer,” says Chelsea. It was his way of expelling cancer, of refusing to let the disease dictate his life.

After the bold finale, they flew to Los Angeles for a holiday and then returned to Hong Kong. Back home, Joshua maintained his keto diet and supplements, and dove back into his routine without skipping a beat. They were doing really well; their optimism and genuine love for life was obvious. But the undercurrent of anxiety – about health, diet, lifestyle choices – took a toll.

And one day, it was just too much.

“Cancer as a sickness is terrible, but the anxiety and fear that it induces can sometimes be worse,” recalls Joshua. “It wasn’t simply a case of me having a breakdown, but the culmination of constantly worrying about my health, diet, and whether or not my choices are feeding my sickness – or fighting it. These are the struggles that people who have battled, or are battling, cancer have to deal with.”

The couple had been considering getting a dog for a while and, knowing they can be therapeutic, it felt like the perfect time. So Chelsea arranged a visit to an Animal Friends adoption day. “I wanted to change the focus from constantly thinking about health to caring for a little puppy – I wanted to fill our lives with joy, happiness and a sense of calm,” she adds. 

The next day, they adopted Boston, who they named after that very important time in their lives. “She got a new life; we got a new life,” adds Chelsea.

Throughout the experience, Chelsea and Joshua felt loved and supported by a community of friends, family and colleagues. Without that, they would have been lost. “I couldn’t have endured such a turbulent journey without Chelsea and our incredible community,” says Joshua.

Chelsea echoes the sentiment. The support of these people, she says, got them through their most difficult days. “Our faith [as Christians] played a huge role, the community, the support… that was invaluable. We had a WhatsApp group prayer chat, where we could send updates and ask for specific prayers. Our community was our rock!”

At every step of the journey, they shared updates on their feelings and treatments on social media, which Chelsea says also helped immensely. “We made a decision to share everything – the good and the bad,” says Chelsea. “Some days, I didn’t feel like pretending I was okay. All I wanted to do is scream and cry and yell. By being honest, I wanted others to know that it’s okay to feel that way. We wanted to let people see our real emotions and struggles; not just a highlight reel. There is no perfect way to handle this.”

Finally, the wait was over. A few days before Christmas, Dr Liebsch called. The scan was clear. Joshua’s tumour was gone. He was cancer-free.

“I didn’t realise that I’d been holding my breath for six months until I heard those words,” says Chelsea. “It was a really intense year. Two serious cancer diagnoses. My dad is thriving; Joshua is thriving. They both returned to ‘normal’ life, but with more focus, passion and a clearer perspective than ever. We’ve gone through this together and just feel a deeper connection [because of that].”

As challenging as it was, cancer gave Joshua and Chelsea a totally new perspective. “You hear ‘cancer’ and either you fall into a pit or, all of a sudden, life becomes a priority. These are the things that matter. These are the things that don’t. Your focus is just much clearer.”

She says they would even go through it all over again if they had the choice. “For us, the experience was really positive. It brought us closer as a couple. It’s also changed how we approach self-care. Instead of waiting for that massage or vacation, we just do it now. You don’t know what will happen tomorrow. You just have no idea.”

Every day is a bonus

Donning rainbow-hued sneakers, Diana Chow looks optimistic when we meet in Quarry Bay. Her mum, Li, has recently survived yet another complication with adenocarcinoma – a glandular cancer that the 73-year-old has been battling over the past three years.

 Diana says you would never know her mum has cancer. She’s always on the go, socialising, even staying up until midnight to watch shooting stars.

“She won’t ever call herself an ‘old woman.’ Physically, yes, but mentally definitely not. Her mind is like that of a teenager. She still loves to go to Lan Kwai Fong on Halloween. She wants to try anything and everything. Maybe that’s why she is so strong. She really loves life.”

It was on an evening in early December 2015 that the family realised something was wrong. “Suddenly, my mum said she was feeling strange and couldn’t balance,” recalls Diana. “It was like she lost her depth perception. Everyone thought it was a stroke.” 

That same night, the family took Li to Tseung Kwan O Hospital Accident & Emergency for a CT scan. And then came the news: a brain tumour. Doctors suspected she needed surgery, so they transferred her to Queen Elizabeth Hospital and put her on a waitlist for an MRI.

“We had to wait a few days before she had the MRI scan,” she recalls. “The report confirmed the tumour [and] cerebral edema [excess water in the brain], which causes severe swelling and pressure on her brain. She needed surgery immediately.”

Diana and her siblings were still processing the news. “No one in our family thought this could happen to my mum. She’s so healthy,” recalls Diana. “She did everything ‘right’ in life. She exercised, never smoke or drank, followed a vegetarian diet, and looked after herself.

“I had at least a little bit of an idea of how to go forward because my father had larynx cancer and lung cancer before. He actually had cancer three times, but eventually died from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [a common lung disease].”

Diana Chow with her mum Li.
Diana Chow with her mum Li.

After the surgery, her mum recovered well, which filled Diana with hope. That feeling didn’t last long, however. During a subsequent PET scan just before Christmas, Li’s doctors discovered the cancer was already stage 4, and had spread from her lungs to her brain, bone, and the adrenal glands.

“Luckily, because they took a sample of the tumour from the brain, they could test a first-generation targeted therapy [a type of drug that targets cancer’s specific genes and proteins],” says Diana. “They believed these drugs should work for her.”

In the meantime, as her mum’s primary caregiver, Diana devoured every piece of research available. She also devised a strategic approach to care: Since doctors in the public sphere had limited time for discussion at each appointment, Diana consulted a private doctor to ensure she understood her mum’s situation and the options available to her.

“We had the resources to do a mix of private and public care [but not solely private] – one MRI alone in private is HK$5,000-10,000,” says Diana. “This [scenario] led to a better communication between me and the HA doctors, who don’t really have much time, just 15 minutes. They might not tell you all your options – not because they don’t want to, but because they think you won’t understand.”

After roughly two years of treatments, Li showed great progress. In some areas, such as her bones and glands, the medicine cured the cancer completely. Her brain and lung tumours shrunk until they were nearly invisible on a scan.

All seemed under control. Diana says she felt like she could finally breathe, after much uncertainty and fear. But in December 2017, an MRI scan revealed that Li’s tumour in her brain had started growing again. Worse still, doctors believed it had become drug-resistant. They would have to find a new treatment strategy in order to save her mum. 

“We panicked,” recalls Diana. “The doctors were sure that the drugs wouldn’t be useful for her anymore; the tumour kept growing. It was really active.”

We felt like there was really no hope. Like it was the end of the story.

Diana Chow

In January 2018, Diana arranged for her mum to have high-dose radiotherapy. But Li’s brain started swelling three months after the treatments, and medical professionals weighed in with different views. One oncologist thought it was a recurring tumour and advised Diana to schedule brain surgery. Another doctor advised against it, saying that was just a side effect of radiotherapy, not the cancer.

“They’re both good doctors. I believe they were both trying to help,” she says. “But they had different ideas and I was the middle of it. I’m the one making decisions for my mum. I was just so scared.”

The doctors managed to control the swelling with steroids, so they waited, observed and, ultimately, avoided surgery. Diana felt a surge of relief. “I felt like my mum’s life was in my hands,” she recalls. “But every time we have to make a big decision, I try to distance myself from that [emotion]. I always try to understand what’s going on. In this way, while being a worried daughter, I am able to [take care of my mother] in an objective manner. It helps me to stay rational.”

Following radiotherapy on the brain, everything seemed under control again, until December when a CT scan revealed a new development: the cancer had spread to the pleura (the membrane that envelopes the lungs). Her doctors said it would be impossible to treat the lungs with radiotherapy and surgery, so Diana looked for alternatives.

“That was really terrible news. Once it spread, it was very urgent. That first week, we saw one tumour, then two to three weeks later, there were four or five.”

At one point, Li’s private oncologist advised her to go to the public hospital for chemotherapy. “It was as if he had given up on her. Maybe he didn’t have any more ideas,” says Diana. “That was the hardest time for us. We felt like there was really no hope. Like it was the end of the story. We didn’t know what to do. But we didn’t give up.”

Diana knew her mum needed a biopsy in order to test for gene mutations that would be receptive to available targeted therapy drugs, but it would be a high-risk procedure due to the tumours’ proximity to the heart. Several doctors turned her away.

“I kept trying, kept asking. And, luckily, I finally found Dr Wong Yik at Hong Kong Adventist Hospital in Tsuen Wan, who said yes. He said if my mom was willing, then he’d try. I asked her: ‘Do you want to try or not? Do you want to keep going?’ This was her only hope.”

Diana’s mum vowed to keep fighting. “She replied: ‘I will do whatever I can do to survive.’”

After the biopsy procedure, Diana waited for the results, checking on the report every day. Then on Christmas Eve, she heard the news.

“When I got the results, I was at a Scouts holiday party – I am a Scouts volunteer. The WhatsApp came from Dr Cindy Wong, the oncologist. It said my mum could take the third-generation targeted therapy drug [a drug designed for patients who have become drug-resistant to earlier generations]. I was in front of a lot of kids, and I just remember stumbling a little. It was just too touching. It was like a gift from God right before Christmas.”

She always tells me: ‘It’s OK. Every single day is a bonus.

Diana Chow

Diana’s mum started the new regime at Queen Elizabeth Hospital this January. It’s effective but expensive, about HK$50,000 per month. For the first two months, Diana self-financed the drug. But in mid-February, the government approved the medicine’s inclusion in the Community Care Fund’s subsidy scheme. “If she doesn’t take it, my mum will die. Luckily, they will help with some of it. I still worry about the money, but I think I can solve it.”

After 12 weeks of treatments, Li’s latest PET scan showed that the left lung tumour is now smaller and less active – a promising result. The family hopes that this third-generation drug has, at the very least, bought their mum some time for new drugs and treatment methods.

“We feel hope. My mum wants to live longer, for sure, but if tomorrow is the day, she is okay with that. She lives every day to the fullest. She always tells me: ‘It’s OK. Every single day is a bonus.’”