As we think of Helen today on her birthday and hear of recent news that high levels of arsenic in rice may be tied to lung cancer, I offer the following story:
Good, Clean Living No Guard Against Cancer
One would think that exercising daily, eating a sensible, organic diet, and cleaning with organic products would ensure a long, healthy life. One would think. That's probably what my sister Helen thought until she got sick. Her symptoms did not seem too alarming at first. She experienced fatigue, which she chalked up to overwork, followed by chest pains and a cough that became more persistent. Her doctor thought it was heart related, then acid reflux, and then pneumonia. It didn't dawn on anybody that it could be cancer, but finally a scan and biopsy confirmed the shocking diagnosis - stage 4 lung cancer.
I myself thumbed my nose at everything I knew I was supposed to do, so it was ironic and unbelievably unfair that Helen got lung cancer. She did everything right, led a healthy lifestyle, so why her??? She read every article about cancer and followed precautions religiously, from eliminating pesticides in lawn care to avoiding plastic bowls in the microwave. She exercised and did tai chi every day. She bought organic foods, ate moderately and kept her sweet tooth in check. Aside from a little social smoking her first year of college, she was not a smoker. So even though I researched the odds -- 1% of non-small cell lung cancer patients in stage 4 have a 5-year survival rate -- I hoped against hope that her years of clean living would carry her through this. It was not to be. Her first scans showed that the cancer had spread to her bones, in particular her back close to the spinal cord. She started with a daily course of radiation treatments. At first, she was able to walk slowly from the car to the radiology department on her own. Within weeks, she had to be wheeled there.
Treatment was tough, and Helen suffered the nausea, dehydration, loss of appetite, pain and inflammation typical of chemo and radiation, along with additional complications. First came a compression fracture caused by a tumor in one of her disks. Then, while standing on one leg in the shower, Helen felt a snap and thought she sprained her knee. A week later during a hospital visit, her thigh bone spontaneously broke when she simply turned in bed. The "sprained knee" was actually a fracture caused by tumor weakening the bone. One surgery to pin her bones together was followed by another because the pins had shifted in her tumor-ridden bones. Preparation for surgery postponed treatments that may have given her an extra month or two to live, or maybe more. We'll never know.
Such was how the five months went, one devastating blow after another, too many and too personal to list and allow Helen to keep her dignity. Suffice it to say that her health deteriorated until she could barely walk. But that did not keep her husband Calvin from trying to keep her moving, practicing tai chi together as a form of physical and mental therapy. Her oncologist mentioned palliative care (sounds so much better than hospice I guess) but since she had a lot of family help throughout the day, we wanted her to stay at home. All sorts of medical equipment -- oxygen tanks, wheelchair, walker, hospital bed, etc. -- arrived at the house. For someone who looked so young that she still got carded in her mid-50's, she declined so rapidly that an attendant once asked if she was my mother. Helen didn't see many people during those five months. It took too much effort for her to talk to visitors as she bravely tried to appear and sound stronger than she really was. She didn't want people to see her in that condition and thought she would see them when she got better. Sadly, she never did…
So that is what happened to my sister. Now let me tell you who she was. Helen was beautiful, intelligent, poised, understanding and had a flair for the dramatic when telling a good story. The oldest of our siblings, she stressed the importance of our Sunday family dinners to our parents, who often showed their love through food, not words. She took my parents with her on vacation (which doesn't just make her a saint, but also everyone in her family). As her younger sister, I had a lot of admiration for all her many talents. Helen had an eye for style and design plus natural skills as a gourmet cook (no doubt influencing her daughter Jessi, now a young fashion designer in NYC and her son Drew, a foodie since 8 years old.) A truly gracious and consummate hostess, Helen was kind and polite, always first to initiate conversation with people at a party, making them feel welcome. A psychology major, she had good intuition, she cared for others and always tried to help out. "Helen was like a mother to our children," recalled one Academy member, "It has been a privilege to have had her guidance all these years. Helen is and will continue to be dearly missed but will always be with us and our children in the values she has instilled in them."
Sixteen years ago, Helen helped support her husband's dream to open up a martial arts school, although she was raising their two small children at the time. Putting family first seemed to work for them. Calvin (known as Sifu to his students) said their success came from strong family -- and community -- ties. "We grew closer over time, and our life was so integrated with our family and our extended family -- the Academy." Helen learned martial arts herself, enough so that she actually taught and coached some of the students. But, beyond the routines, Helen also imparted lessons for life. One student put it this way "Simo (Helen is Simo at the school) taught us to always be confident and to keep our heads up. She taught us to work together and to be leaders and role models for the younger kids. Most importantly though, Simo has taught us appreciation -- to appreciate our culture and heritage, our family, our friendships, and all of the memories we've had together."
Preserving precious memories and honoring Helen's life is the goal of the Helen Gee Chin Scholarship Foundation, created by her husband, and rallied around by supportive students and close-knit Academy members. The Foundation awards college scholarships to encourage academic achievement and motivate individuals to become serious Chinese martial artists. In 2011, the Foundation awarded a total of $5000 to two students, and in 2012, it awarded more than double that amount.
In addition to raising funds for the Foundation, we want to raise awareness about lung cancer, particularly for non-smokers who do not feel they are at risk and those who feel their healthy lifestyles will guard them from this terrible disease. Lung cancer is the number one cancer killer, and yet there is currently no early screening process in place. Be your own health advocate and find out as much as you can. Conquering cancer clearly takes teamwork, something Calvin and Helen embraced all their lives together. "We were a team," Calvin said, "A strong one at that."
To all our scholarship donors, we sincerely thank you for keeping my beloved big sister Helen's legacy alive.
Due to the newness of the Foundation, notice of the scholarship has not reached enough eligible applicants. Therefore, the application deadline has been extended. All applications must be complete and received on or before July 31, 2011. The award will be made mid-August.
Also, thanks to successful fund raising and generous supporters, the award amount has been increased to $2500.