SINGAPORE – A final-stage lung cancer patient in his 30s has climbed Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia, a little over a year after he was diagnosed.
Software engineer Elden Yee’s feat, accomplished in June, inspired his doctor to form a stair-climbing group for lung cancer patients.
Mr Yee’s life-changing experience started early in 2021 when the 33-year-old noticed a cough that surfaced whenever he had to speak at length during work meetings. He saw no improvement after four visits to a general practitioner and was referred to a hospital.
A diagnosis of Stage 3 lung cancer was made in May 2021.
Mr Yee was stoic when he heard the news. He recalls: “When my doctor confirmed it, I just said ‘Okay.’ My wife and I had already grieved about it three weeks prior, when I did a lung biopsy. Cancer had been highly suspected and I had come to terms with it.”
“But my son was still a baby and I was worried about my wife and child. I thought, ‘Am I going to die before seeing my son grow up?’” says the Malaysian permanent resident. His 30-year-old wife Karen Lau works as a florist.
The couple’s son is now two years old, and Ms Lau is pregnant with their second child. Ms Lau and their son, Tristan, reside in Miri, Sarawak. All three of them moved there this year before Mr Yee recently returned to his Singapore workplace after he took a year’s leave for his health.
The biopsy was unpleasant for Mr Yee. It involved inserting a tube to take a small sample of cells from the lung to check for signs of disease. Under local anaesthesia, he had the sensation that he was “suffocating”.
His chemotherapy and radiotherapy, which lasted from June to October 2021, was difficult physically and emotionally.
The day after each of his five rounds of chemotherapy, he was too tired to get out of bed. Symptoms such as weakness and fatigue lasted about 10 days each time. Everything tasted like “seawater” and the onset of insomnia left him on the verge of depression. His throat felt “burnt” after the daily radiotherapy that followed chemotherapy. He lost 9kg as a result.
But after his treatment, the tumour on his left lung seemed to disappear.
The joy was short-lived. His persistent cough resurfaced at the end of 2021 and once, he coughed up a “cupful” of blood, which sent him rushing to the hospital emergency department. A computed tomography (CT) scan revealed the cancer had returned.
Mr Yee says: “The treatment had failed. My cancer had advanced to stage 4. It hit me like a truck, but I didn’t dwell on it too long. Each time I did chemo, there was a waiting period before I saw the doctor. During the week, I had time to digest the developments, calm myself and have a discussion with my wife, my strongest emotional support.”
Stage 4 lung cancer is incurable, but certain treatments can alleviate the symptoms. His doctor at the National Cancer Centre Singapore, Clinical Assistant Professor Amit Jain, says: “In the context of Stage 4 lung cancer that is incurable, the overall goal of treatment is to control the cancer so that patients feel better and can live longer with a relatively good quality of life.”
Mr Yee was put on a daily regimen of the drug Gefitinib, which gives him rashes and frequent diarrhoea.
His thoughts turned to his childhood.
He was born in Sabah, Malaysia, and Mount Kinabalu – which reaches a height of some 4,000m, about half the height of the world’s highest mountain, Mount Everest – could be seen from his childhood home in Ranau district.
He says: “Mount Kinabalu was in my kampung, but I had never climbed it. It was in my backyard, but I hadn’t conquered it. It was also on my bucket list before cancer.”
He had been climbing up and down 15 flights of stairs at his Housing Board flat in Buangkok where he lived at the time, exercise that lifted his well-being in his cancer fight.
He decided to approach his doctor for the green light to climb the mountain he was most familiar with. His wife and his 31-year-old brother, Elmer, who works in Brunei in the renovation and carpentry sector, wanted to accompany him to watch over him.
Dr Amit, senior consultant at the division of medical oncology at the cancer centre, says that while the symptoms of lung cancer can include breathlessness, cough and blood in phlegm, a patient whose cancer is under control can sometimes achieve considerable physical feats.
He says: “Generally, the ability to perform daily tasks and physical activity level is determined by the strength, stamina and flexibility of each patient. Patients who eat well and exercise regularly are usually able to maintain their function and cope with symptoms better.
“When the cancer is under control with treatment, and treatment-related side effects are manageable, there is no upper limit for them to improve their function through good nutrition and regular exercise.”
He adds: “Climbing a 4,000m mountain requires physical and mental strength, endurance and stamina. It is not an easy task, even for regular healthy people.”
In January this year, Mr Yee, with his wife and child, moved to Miri to spend time with their family. A month before his attempt at climbing Mount Kinabalu, he and his wife started climbing stairs together and exercising to Nintendo Switch fitness videos.
Taking on Mount Kinabalu, which they and Mr Yee’s brother, Elmer, climbed over two days in June, was formidable.
Mr Elden Yee was still suffering from the effects of his medication and he had bouts of diarrhoea on the ascent, needing to use the toilet stops along the way. He also felt dehydrated and weak, and sprained his knee. Every few metres, he had to rest and catch his breath.
The trio have a photo of themselves just 30m from the summit in windy, 2 deg C weather, with Mr Yee holding a banner that reads: “Lung cancer will not keep me down.”
They chose to descend without summiting.
He says: “In another 30 minutes, I would have reached the top, but I didn’t think I could make it.”
He has already impressed his own doctor.
Dr Amit says: “In Elden’s case, he has inspired us all by setting a real-life example and showing us that is no upper limit for physical activities even when battling cancer.”
Dr Amit and another consultant at the cancer centre started an exercise group called #lungcancerwillnotkeepmedown. He hopes to “motivate lung cancer patients to stay healthy and active, and encourage everyone to reach their own ‘peaks’.”
In August, the group organised its first stair-climbing activity, where 10 lung cancer patients and their families, as well as a few doctors and healthcare professionals from the cancer centre, took to the stairs at SkyVille@Dawson.
Mr Yee has now set his sights on climbing Mount Rinjani, a volcano in Indonesia.
He says: “I don’t regret not reaching the summit of Mount Kinabalu at all. At least I tried.
“I climbed it to get affirmation that I could. I wanted to dispel the notion that having stage 4 lung cancer means giving up on life. It’s not the end of life.”
Those interested can e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
to find out more about the exercise group for lung cancer patients, #lungcancerwillnotkeepmedown.