Mei Fung, never a smoker, died of a rare type of lung cancer, leaving behind three devastated men — her husband, Douglas, who cared for her, and her sons Timothy and Brad, just finding their ways as young adults.
We met while I was working in Zimbabwe. She was a small Chinese woman from Singapore with incredible intelligence and musical talent, kind and funny. I fell for her right away. After a two-week courtship, I followed her to England, her home, and we were married and had two sons. Eventually we came to the States where I was offered a job as a hematologist, performing stem cell transplants. And she found a job as a radiologist.
A few weeks before Timothy’ high school graduation, she came to me without emotion and said, “I have a mass in my abdomen.” I felt it too but dismissed it. It didn’t cross my mind that she could have a tumor. She was always so focused on her health and lived so cleanly. How could it be anything to worry about? But she mentioned it to another radiologist friend, who arranged for her to have a CT scan.
It was still without emotion that she sat me down and told me the CT scan showed unmistakable cancer in her abdomen and chest. We made arrangements for her to have a biopsy that confirmed it was adenocarcinoma. A few days later we learned that it had, in fact, originated in the lungs. It was stage IV lung cancer, incurable, with a life expectancy of 6 – 12 months. It was so odd. She had such minimal symptoms, but there is a genetic mutation that pre-disposes one to this cancer, and it turns out that she had it. We later learned that so did two of her relatives.
Friends, Food and Music
We were both knowledgeable enough to know this was not good news. But in the midst of his graduation and prom and all the other end of year excitement, we kept the focus on Timothy. She was more intrigued at the prospect of meeting his prom date than worrying about her treatment or future. We strived to keep things as normal as possible at home. I was shocked and devastated by the diagnosis. But my goal was to sustain her as best I could, first through the diagnostic testing and decision making, then through treatment.
We let our sons know what was going on. They were old enough to be a part of it. They were stoic at first, at least in front of us, although they were clearly upset, and we did get a call from school about our younger son, Brad. Who can imagine losing their mother at such a young age?
I took a leave of absence from work so that I could be there for her and help minimize the challenges. We also let our close friends and family know. Almost immediately we started receiving a huge amount of support, especially from friends who lived close. We had daily visitors who brought food and laughter and music that kept us going.
Once we had figured out a plan, Mei Fung started seeing a specialist who was actually a colleague of mine. It was comforting to know she was in good hands, and that allowed us both to focus on holding everything together. She started IV chemotherapy with all the usual side effects — mouth ulcers and nausea, fatigue and hair loss. We knew her cancer was incurable but hoped for a remission or at least to reduce the burden of the disease. At one point, with tears welling up in her eyes, Mei Fung said that she wasn’t afraid of dying, but she didn’t want to suffer. I made it my job to make sure she didn’t suffer.
During this time, Timothy went off to college. Although he was always reserved and put on a strong front, he wept as we drove to campus and as I said goodbye. He was so worried about his mother that he came home every weekend so he could be with her as much as possible, somehow managing to get his schoolwork done, too .
After four rounds of chemo, with little or no impact on her disease and some pretty challenging side effects, including neurologic damage left her functionally blind, depriving her of the ability to read or play music, two of her passions, they switched her to a newly approved drug targeting her cancer’s underlying mutation. Her disease just melted away. It was quite a dramatic response. The drug gave her mouth ulcers, but there was no evidence of disease on the next scan. She had had a complete remission and it lasted for over two years.
Then, she had a relapse and they tried treatment with a different targeted therapy that didn’t work and was even more toxic. At this point, we started investigating a second opinion or joining a clinical trial, but ultimately Mei Fung decided not to. She was tired of the side effect of treatment and had become so much weaker as a result of all the drugs and the disease. She decided to stop treatment and move on to hospice care at home.
The boys continued to be close during this time, with Timothy coming home every weekend and Brad choosing to attend college 20 minutes away, despite being recruited by schools on both coasts. They just wanted to be near and wanted to be as supportive as possible of their mom. And they are still very supportive of me.
Mei Fung had started to have abdominal issues from the cancer and was frequently in pain. She needed a drain inserted in her peritoneum for the fluid that kept accumulating as a result of the disease. It was clearly so uncomfortable for her. Visiting nurses came regularly to help her, but there was one day when she was in so much pain that I took care of the drain for her. Our son Brad was there and saw the instant relief that it brought his mom. I think it inspired him to become a doctor — he could see immediately how one could help people.
The last couple of months were surreal. Her sisters and her brother came from out of town to visit and there were always friends around. Everyone wanted to be thoughtful and supportive, although well-intentioned comments and actions didn’t always land well. We all struggled with letting go, but she had had enough. At the time, I felt it was not my decision to make. I don’t think her decision was wrong, but it was hard to accept because it meant losing her. She was only 59.
She knew she was dying and organized her own funeral service, specifying music, biblical passages to read and hymns. And she asked me to prepare a eulogy, so I started thinking about it before her death. We all understood that it was inevitable and had been preparing ourselves for weeks, if not months. But it was the strength of her personality that gave us all the courage we needed to get through it.
She spent the last two weeks in a hospice facility where they could give her more attention and assure that she was pain free. At that point, the boys and I rotated nights so that we would be there for her, and I was with her the morning she died. It was a tremendous loss for us all. She was so strong, so intelligent and so self-supportive that she made it easier for me and the boys.
There were some difficult days to get through, and I was glad that she had planned as much as she did. The service was beautiful, as she had directed it to be, so filled with love. And friends stayed dear and supportive. In time, we resumed our lives, as she would have wanted us to, remembering her request that we “smile, open our eyes, love and go on.”