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Living well with stage four lung cancer

"They're not aware, but I plan to tell them soon," shared Priscilla*, a mother of three whose children do not know that their mother has been receiving cancer treatment at the National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS) for the past three years.

The 47-year-old accountant explained that she wants to live as normal a life as possible, so she goes about doing her daily routine – exercising, going to work and performing household chores.

"I look perfectly fine on the outside, and have not experienced any pain since I was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. That is why my children have not noticed anything out of the ordinary and do not know about my diagnosis yet."

A cancer diagnosis: to share or not to share?

As her children are young, Priscilla has been concerned about how the knowledge of her cancer diagnosis might affect them. This worry is why she has yet to tell them.    

Priscilla is not alone. Many patients with cancer struggle to tell their children of the diagnosis. Cancer is a life-changing diagnosis and, along with side effects related to treatment, it can trigger a myriad of issues that make it difficult for an individual to cope during the cancer journey. Sharing news of a cancer diagnosis with children can be particularly challenging as parents want to protect them from fear or distress the news might bring.

In the beginning

Priscilla was first diagnosed when a health screening x-ray scan indicated the presence of multiple nodules in both lungs.

"I could not understand it. I do not smoke nor drink, and did not experience any symptoms – no pain, no cough, no shortness of breath," remarked Priscilla.

"It was devastating. I felt like I was given a death sentence."

Priscilla is not the only non-smoker diagnosed with lung cancer. It has been discovered that lung cancer can affect individuals who have never smoked.

Mason*, a retiree was prompted to go for medical check-up in 2019 when his friends noticed an unexplained and unusual darkening of his complexion. With no family history of cancer, Mason was taken aback by when he heard the lung cancer diagnosis. He was promptly started on a treatment regime, enrolled in a clinical trial for a period of time before switching to another oral targeted therapy.

Holding on to hope

Priscilla shared that she coped with juggling the challenges of motherhood and treatment by leaving her job. She also started practising meditation to deal with the anxiety and resolved to take things in her stride and one day at a time.

Last year, Priscilla re-joined the workforce and finds solace in getting back to normal life.

Meanwhile, 73-year-old Mason, who lives with his wife, got through his cancer journey by taking advantage of technology to keep in touch with his children, who live abroad with their families.

"My daughter returned to Singapore and cared for me during my hospitalisation. Since she went back to Australia, technology has helped us to bridge the distance," shared Mason.

Medicine heals the body, people soothe the hearts

Mason and his wife shared that the NCCS care team were 'one of their sources of strength during treatment', and were grateful for their medical expertise and kindness. When he stopped responding to the trial drug, Mason's doctor, Dr Gillianne Lai, Consultant in the Department of Lung, Head & Neck and Genitourinary, Division of Medical Oncology, NCCS, quickly looked for an alternative drug, which he is still on today. He also expressed appreciation to the clinical trial coordinator, Xiao Wen, who was ever ready to help with much-needed advice when he was on the clinical trial.   

"Knowing that there was somebody we could reach quickly to ask if a symptom was normal, was very appreciated during that difficult time."

For Priscilla, the main thing that got her through was her immediate family, especially the support from her husband. Upon her diagnosis, Priscilla's husband readily assumed the role of caregiver while managing other aspects of the household that she used to oversee. While Priscilla has not been able to freely talk about her condition at home, she is thankful that she can share her journey with her husband.  

Both Mason and Priscilla shared that while medicine is the method to treat the disease, it is people who helped to support them through their respective cancer journeys.

* Names have been changed

+ Resources on helping children cope with a cancer diagnosis in the family can be found here.