Stories of Hope

Getting a new lease of life with a different approach to cancer

“My name is Jeffrey Leong. I am 58-years-old, self-employed and a father-of-two. I am also living with Stage 4 lung cancer and here is my story.”

My lung cancer journey

It all started in July 2016, when I experienced a muscle tendon injury around my right shoulder. I thought it was a strained muscle resulting from my regular cardio and weights training session. I rested initially and tried methods such as acupuncture and sports massages to alleviate the pain, but nothing worked. When the condition got worse, I headed to the hospital and was asked to get some tests done. What was meant to be a routine MRI scan turned into a moment that would change my life.

I was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. The MRI scan uncovered two tumours in bothmy lungs and one in the left adrenal gland. The largest tumour, inside my right lung, was 12cm in length.

Taking a different approach to the cancer diagnosis

My initial reaction to my diagnosis was disbelief and dismay – after all I didn’t have severe symptoms, just a persistent cough that I dismissed as a “smoker’s cough”. For the first couple of days, I kept thinking “Why me?”. But when I thought about my family, I regained my fighting attitude. As a father of two daughters aged 17 and 21 at that time, my concern and focus were on them – how was I going to break the news to them?

We are a close-knit family, and I knew it would be tough for them to accept if anything happens to their dad.

After discussion with my wife, we decided to take a unique approach to my diagnosis – we presented my diagnosis like a “business plan” to our daughters. I decided that I must stay positive, or at least always present a fighting front for their sake. I also convinced my daughters to try to stay positive and optimistic. We discussed and analysed the different treatment processes and options, choice of doctors and even the financial implications together. We sought advice from the right people whenever we could.

My treatment journey

Lung cancer is one of the most lethal cancers in Singapore, and a late-stage diagnosis did not bode well for me. My treatment commenced immediately with two gruelling rounds of chemotherapy. Despite this, my cancer continued to spread. As the cancer grew, it obstructed a key vein, restricting blood flow to the heart, and this made breathing difficult.

Four months after the diagnosis, my doctor discussed a new option with me – immunotherapy. He explained that immunotherapy is a relatively new cancer treatment that harnesses the immune system to fight the cancer.

I knew that with Stage 4 lung cancer, there won’t be a miraculous therapy. At the time, deciding on whether I should continue with the standard treatment or go for something more innovative was a challenging decision. But the current treatment was not helping, and it was a matter of life and death.

Ultimately, immunotherapy was combined with chemotherapy for my treatment. One year into my treatment, I was thrilled when my doctor showed me the scans and I was heartened to see that my scans showed that my cancer was under complete remission and showed no evidence of tumour cells. I continued the treatment for another year per my doctor’s advice, to further reduce the chances of a relapse.

Staying motivated

Looking back, my biggest challenge during my cancer journey was its psychological impact. A coping mechanism that I developed was to stay active. Throughout my cancer treatment, I pushed myself to continue exercising. I would do 45-minute walks on the treadmill daily and lift weights.

However, at one point, I was so weak that I couldn’t even do a 1kg bicep curl when I used to lift 10 to 12kgs!

I remained determined about not resting in bed or staying at home – that’s when I believe people give up on life. I wanted to live life as normally as I could. I motivated myself by thinking that even though I was walking slower, I was still able to walk and move and be mobile.

Cancer can be a long process. I’m grateful for my family who was very involved throughout, being my main caregivers and source of motivation. I made sure to explain everything about my condition to my family. I did not hide the truth from them. The more involved they are, the more empowered they feel to support you. My wife, who has been with me for 28 years, has been my greatest support throughout my cancer journey.

Looking to the future

I have stopped smoking two packets of cigarettes a day and I have now embraced a healthier lifestyle consisting of more fresh whole foods, less processed food and regular exercise.

I have also taken “a step backwards” in my career and now work on a contract basis. I used to be the first person to step into the office, and the last to leave. No more chasing after materialistic goals. There’s too much in life to live for!

I am a firm believer that regular screening is one of the ways cancer be detected earlier which may improve prognosis. I had always been regular with my full-body check-ups but missed the scheduled x-rays in early 2016. Had I followed the schedule for the check-ups, my cancer would have been detected earlier and would not have progressed to Stage 4.

My advice to those who have been diagnosed with cancer? Remain positive not only for yourself but also instil a sense of positivity in people around you. If you look at the advancement in medical science today, there are many treatment options available now to draw hope from. Remain physically active, and last but not least, find a doctor you trust. People gave me a lot of advice, from boiling a certain root to eating a certain leaf. I did not do any of those. All I did was to listen to my doctor.

Today, the pain and stiffness around my shoulder remains, and my thyroid gland has been damaged as a side effect of my treatments, but I count myself lucky for this new lease of life.

Share your ‘I Can’ story

Have you been diagnosed with lung cancer and chose to forge ahead on your own terms? Do you have a loved one who turned to face lung cancer head-on? As a caregiver, do you have tips and stories of encouragement for other caregivers?

Share your story to help empower others living with lung cancer.

Remember that there is power in the community, others with a lung cancer diagnosis could feel supported and inspired by understanding how you are taking on lung cancer.

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