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Sometimes the things that we learn from academic studies and for those of us who had been in the seminary, the courses that we had learnt from spirituality and pastoral courses can somewhat put us in a disadvantage from truly getting in touch with the reality of suffering and the Cross. I have to admit that personally, from the time I was diagnosed with Leukemia in February, I may have mistakenly rushed through the five stages of grief just because I had intellectually known about them and read about them, and through the encounters of others who have suffered, decided in a silent way to simply accept the situation and be strong about it. God apparently, had his ways to show that the Cross and suffering is something that we can’t work at on our own. I can’t pull myself up by my own bootstraps no matter how I may hope to do it.
I have realized that I also need to allow myself to ask that difficult but unanswered question of ‘why’? I hadn’t allowed myself this very important but necessary question in my illness, perhaps because I knew that at the bottom of it all, there are very little meaningful answers that will satisfy and give that peace that so many people seek when facing the various kinds of pains and struggles that we meet in life.
The thing about living with and dealing with a blood cancer is that there is a pain that isn’t often physical. It’s a very long road to recovery as if one is running not just a marathon but an ironman race, with sometimes life-threatening ‘bombs’ that feature along the long journey – a bit like what happened in the Boston Marathon. In the past two weeks, I happened to hit such a ‘bomb’ situation that reminded me that this entire recovery journey was not going to to be anything easy. I was stricken with what is known as an idiopathic pneumonia, which for a blood cancer patient like me with fluctuating blood counts, can be something truly lethal. For two weeks I was in hospital, terribly weakened and subject to constant doses of a powerful antibiotic till the pneumonia cleared. I am very blessed to have come out of the woods, and I am sure it is thanks to the prayers of so many people from around the world, and the professionalism of the doctors who cared for me medically.
But it was in the dark and lonely days in the hospital this time that I really dared to ask that difficult question – ‘why’? I found myself getting strangely emotional very often when this question was pondered. It took me almost ten months to dare to ask that question and I realized that it is not only necessary but also spiritually healthy. Scripture has always told us to look for the face of God in our suffering, and I know that many people who suffer in so many ways are always asking God to show his face to them. They want answers to why their lives had been so interrupted from their dreams and plans because of a suffering that had been untimely introduced. People have all sorts of wonderful plans and hopes for life, and a suffering that jams these plans cause all sorts of anguish and perhaps even confusion about God.
I have only recently been open enough to myself to ask myself why at age 48 I have been afflicted with this debilitating illness. I had plans for my theological future, and so had the diocese by sending me away to get that Licentiate to be useful to the Church in Singapore. I was always advocating a healthy lifestyle as a priest and lived a very consistent lifestyle that included healthy diet and exercise. But I have now come to see that we can plan, we can have hopes and we can have our lives somehow mapped out well by those in charge of us, but ultimately, we need to submit humbly to the Lord who has his ways.
There is nothing that is really embarrassing or shameful in daring in asking that question ‘why’? I will always recall that when I was first diagnosed with Leukemia, a good priest friend told me not to rush into being gung-ho about the suffering that I am to go through. I could not understand at that time why he was being so forthright with me, seeing that I was about to enter a long road to Calvary. Now I can see his wisdom.
The pain of suffering became very real to me when I got discharged from the hospital this time round. I physically fell twice in a night and was totally disoriented from my fall first in the bathroom and then in the bedroom where I found myself at the foot of the bed, not knowing how I landed there, with bruises all over by body. The sleeping medication combined with the steroids that I have been administered to overcome my pneumonia proved to be something that weakened me in the night and just going to the bathroom to relieve myself was such a harrowing experience. I had not encountered a physical pain in my illness so far, even with the many Chemotherapy and transplant experiences, and these falls brought home to me that there is a physical suffering that I have to undergo as part of the mystery of suffering.
Do you find yourself asking that ‘why’ question about life’s suffering? You may not (and usually you wont’) find the answers you are looking for. But make no mistake about it – it is a necessary question that broadens our spiritual horizons to allow God to show us his face.
When my journey into the world of cancer began sometime at December last year, I, like any other cancer patient, had no idea what this ‘adventure’ would entail. Inevitably, it would include a suffering and what many would call a cancer-pain. That never really caused me much worry as I knew that as a disciple of Christ, that pain and that suffering had a hidden purpose that goes beyond what is on the surface. Carried well and with love, it can even save souls. To be sure, there was actually very little actual pain in the first seven months of my diagnosis, and for this, I am grateful. I haven’t really asked around, but in my own experience, perhaps for Leukemia patients, the pain is of a different kind.
But it was only lately that the pain and suffering began to take on a new dimension. That encounter with idiopathic pneumonia had totally weakened my entire body and my breathing for the past two months has been very labored and strained as I begin to re-train my lungs to work in their normal way. The only way I can do this is to just do my breathing exercises each day, and this itself is such an energy sapping exercise.
In the midst of all this that happens in the confines of my home, my doctor asked that I undergo a Bone Marrow Aspiration. This invasive procedure was the very one that I had to undergo in February this year, where my bone marrow was cored and the sample was sent to the labs, the results showing that there were a lot of blast cells, showing the presence of a blood cancer in me. That was when I became a cancer patient.
It had been more than 100 days since July 25, the Feast Day of St James, that I received so gratefully the stem-cells from my mystery perfect-match donor from America. This gave the doctor reason to order the Bone Marrow Aspiration for the third time this year. Last Wednesday, I went for the procedure and left the results to the Lord with great trust. The very next day, the initial report came back and the kind doctor informed me that there are no longer any cancer cells in me, and I am henceforth cancer-free.
Cancer-free! I now know the experience of truly being vindicated. God has heard the prayer of his servant and has given him new life! I have been truly transformed and offered life anew by my God. No one is able to truly understand how liberating this experience is. My faith handles this piece of news in ways that must be different from people who merely wanted to hear good news. My experience of this causes me to truly enter into the mystery of new life, transformed life, and yes, even the resurrected life. There is no gratitude strong enough, and thanksgiving is endless. Easter has come early for me!
continuing convalescence at home, the suffering and pain still continues. I
still surprise myself at just how weakened my entire body is.
I wanted to 'celebrate' this piece of news by attempting a recipe at a simple
dessert that entailed an entire packet of crushed Digestive Biscuits for its
base. I could only manage four pieces and found myself panting and unable to
continue. 4 measly biscuits. But I laughed silently to myself that if this is
rock bottom, I am still in a good place. I am still tired all the day long,
just breathing. But I know this will end and I will be slowly getting back my
strength, even if it takes a whole year. Being cancer-free gives me the
confidence that I just have to discipline myself, take my time and respond to
God’s daily prompting of how I can be used by him in the confines of my home to
glorify his name and be useful to the Church through the silent walls of my
There are a plethora of places in the Psalms where the just man continues to stay faithful to the Lord somehow suffers injustice, while the sinful man seems to enjoy life, but all the while, the central message is to not give in, not give up and continue to be faithful to the Lord. It may appear that the Lord is doing nothing, but that is only from our point of view, which is of course, a very very limited one. My experience has been something very close to this, and Scripture has become something that is so alive for me. The doctor's good news has become God's news.
I still offer daily Masses for the many who are still suffering in so many ways. My prayer is often that those who are suffering never despair, never give up on loving their fellow man and woman in their pain and suffering, and most of all, that they never give up hope in life, especially if they are baptized Catholics whose greatest gift is that they have been given the Life of Christ at their baptism.
is really for all of you who have been journeying with me for such a long time.
You and your prayers have become a great part of my transformation, and I am
ever so grateful.
I have a humble request from you my blog readers. When I first broke the news to all of you in my February post that I had cancer, you literally poured out your hearts in writing very loving and heartfelt blog responses to that news, and I had a massive 81 comments, telling me that you were all going to be behind me in prayer. This prayer has borne fruit, and one concrete way to give thanks to God in our Catholic Tradition is to write a letter of thanksgiving. It's a common feature in Novenas to show everyone just how grateful we are for God's grace to be manifest in our lives and it is a witness to God's presence and power. Can I request that you do this in this blog as your form of thanksgiving together with me? And as you do this, may your heart and your lives be ever blessed, and may you continue to be effective witnesses to the glory, and the power of God. God love you.
Fr Luke Fong
I had never intended this blog to be about myself or my personal life. This was and is primarily a blog with spiritual content. But since I my diagnosis of Leukemia last month, there has been a lot of misconceptions that require addressing, especially when it comes to locating donors for a possible bone marrow transplant. I greatly appreciate the many who have told me of their intention to donate their bone marrow for my personal remission. However, the process is not as simple as many may make it out to be. Today’s blog, hopefully, will clarify certain misconceptions and prejudices that may be the cause of confusion and uncertainty.
First of all, the technology is so advanced now that no longer is it called a bone marrow transplant. What the doctors use is the stem cells that are extracted from the blood of the donor. There are no painful or agonizing experiences of one’s bone marrow actually being tapped and harvested. The actual procedure is very much like going to donate blood at the blood bank, where one’s blood is taken, stem cells removed, and the rest is returned to the donor’s body in a short span of time. As far as the donor is concerned, that is the only ‘inconvenience’ that one experiences as an actual donor.
Secondly, because the parameters (tissue typing) are so specific before any stem cell is received or given, the matching process is very detailed and specific. This means that even though one may wish to donate one’s stem cells to a particular person in mind, it becomes almost impossible to be recipient-specific. I fully appreciate the friends and parishioners who have told me that they want to give me their stem cells/bone marrow, but this is not how the process works. It is far more complex than just the giving of one’s blood. I have tried to explain to many friends that it doesn’t matter if they cannot donate their stem cells to me directly. What matters is that they register themselves as potential donors and put their names on the worldwide register as interested donors. When this happens, the list of potential donors becomes larger and larger, and it will shorten the waiting time for those who are waiting for willing donors whose basic parameters match theirs. Currently, there are only about 55,000 local names that have registered as potential donors, which is a paltry number when our local population is 5.3 million. This means that only 1% of Singapore’s population have signed up as potential, interested donors! It is no wonder that they are still searching for a local match for me, and probably have to look overseas since only 1% of the local population has taken the effort to register themselves.
Thirdly, there is also the misconception that registering oneself as a potential donor is a painful and tedious process. It is not. One only needs to go the Blood Bank located at the Singapore General Hospital, and give a saliva swab from the cheek and fill out a few forms of personal details. No blood is taken at this point. This will become the basic information that is uploaded onto the local and worldwide register of potential donors. Only when a potential match is discovered will one be contacted so that the next steps can be taken. Apparently, it is at this point that some donors get ‘cold feet’, and decide to not go further in the donation process. You can only imagine the disappointment that some recipients go through after hearing that a possible match has been discovered when this happens.
Fourthly, there is the misconception that donating one’s marrow will be a costly affair for the donor. There is no cost at all to the donor, as the patient’s medical insurance will cover the medical expenses incurred. The only cost will be one’s time and one’s stem cells. It is important, however, to note that the registry will only accept registrants who are between the ages of 18 to 49.
I do hope that this strange blog entry does not draw attention to my own predicament, but that it will help the many thousands who are waiting for a tissue type match, which will be able to give them a remission and much hope. What is really needed is a mindset change towards donating. Because this kind of donation is never recipient-specific, what is required is a generous heart that is open to the possibility of saving a life, no matter whose life it may be.
When we are aware of our being active members of the Body of Christ, and that each one of us are that intrinsically connected through our spiritual bond, we become less concerned about whom we may be saving or helping, because whoever it is, it is a brother or sister in Christ. This is at the heart of true Christian charity. When we live this way, we will ever expand our horizons to love, to care for, and to ennoble one another in our shared journey that is called life.
Further information about the Bone Marrow Donation Programme can be accessed here.
Fr Luke Fong
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