Coming Together in the Face of Lung Cancer

My parents immigrated to the Silicon Valley in the early 90s, a long distance from the rest of our family in Nanjing, China. My parents were the pillars holding up our immediate family of four, and I remember seeing our extended family once every few years. Six months ago, my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. Her specific type is non-small cell lung cancer caused by EGFR gene mutation. This type of lung cancer is common in Asian, non-smoking females, especially under the age of sixty. My mom, the third of four sisters, lost her second oldest sister to the same cancer a few years prior. Shortly after the diagnosis, my parents shared the news with my brother and me, and slowly began telling the rest of our family and close friends.

A new cancer diagnosis can have a wide range of impact on a family, especially when the members are as far flung and widespread in physical and cultural proximity as we are. Over the past few months, I have witnessed truly astounding and inspirational initiative from family, both near and far, to care for my mother. My father, who lost his job a month before my mom’s diagnosis, paid immediate attention to the reality of illness and prioritized securing complete health insurance for my mom and himself. While balancing his own job search, my father accompanied my mother to various specialists in the Bay area and, eventually, to Stanford Hospital, for numerous visits. He outfitted the back of our family van with pillows and blankets and turned it into a space my mom could sleep during drives to the hospital. Before my mother’s diagnosis, my father had planned for and purchased a home for their retirement, further away from Silicon Valley — a move he was very much looking forward to. However, he promptly sold the property to ensure access to high quality health care when it became clear the level of treatment my mom needed. With unbelievable dignity and grace, I saw him transform from software engineer to round-the-clock caregiver. This was a huge transition as he took on the daily tasks of cooking, cleaning, planning, driving and providing emotional support.

Outside of my immediate family, my mother’s youngest sister (my aunt Lilian), moved to the same city a few years after we settled in Pleasanton, California. Aunt Lilian has similarly assumed a caregiving role with resilience and consistency. She cooks meals for our family on countless occasions and regularly comes by to pray with and for my mom. As an active church member, she and my uncle encouraged my mom to reach out to other church members, many of whom are also Chinese immigrants, for support and company. This has connected my mom with a source of stability and solace throughout treatment, and I often see her praying in difficult moments. My mother’s eldest sister lives in Nanjing, China, but upon receiving news of my mother’s condition, she boarded a one-way flight and came to stay with us to help with caregiving and bring much-needed company. This incredible woman, who speaks not a word of English and had never traveled outside of her country before, journeyed alone to accompany my mother to doctor’s appointments and cook for her! My brother, an undergraduate in college, and I, a recent graduate, took turns visiting and taking extended time off to be with our family.

The level of dedication and love I witnessed during this time and continue to witness is incredibly humbling. Previous cultural and generational gaps, exacerbated by language barriers, melted away in the face of my family’s actions. I saw there had only ever been, was only ever, and would forever be love between my family, and it is a blessing to experience our coming together every day.