Battling Stage 4 Cancer with A Circle of Care and Support

Adrian Toh’s recovery journey from Stage 4 lung cancer is strengthened by the loving support of family and friends.

In June 2023, when the results of Adrian Toh’s lung biopsy were out, he was recommended to bring a friend along to the meeting with his oncologist. This was to ensure that he would not be alone when the news was delivered: he had been diagnosed with Stage 4 non-small cell adenocarcinoma, a type of lung cancer.

“I was in shock and disbelief,” he recalls. “I didn’t see myself as being associated with cancer at all, especially lung cancer. I didn’t smoke, I wasn’t overweight. I was a relatively active and healthy person at that time.”

Until then, Adrian had attended all his medical appointments by himself, as his mother — his only immediate family — lived in their Malaysian hometown of Sibu, Sarawak. Upon being informed of his cancer diagnosis, she flew to Singapore to be with him.

When life throws a curveball

Adrian, who turns 42 this year, has lived on his own since moving to Kuala Lumpur for college at 17. After a stint in the corporate sector, his love of travel brought him to Singapore 14 years ago to sign on as a cabin crew member.

In 2023, feeling that it was time for a change, the now-Singapore citizen resigned from his role to become a real estate agent. Before leaving, however, he decided to go for a long-overdue health screening.

Adrian’s decision was also prompted by the fact that he had been coughing so badly that it was affecting his sleep. He saw several General Practitioners, who offered varying diagnoses ranging from the common cold to the recurrence of his childhood asthma, but none of the treatments were able to stop the cough. When the health screening result was out, it highlighted that there were unusual spots on his chest X-ray. This meant he needed to undergo further checks with a lung specialist. “My oncologist said it’s Stage 4, it’s pretty advanced, but here are the steps we are going to take. I felt I was in good hands.”

Surrounded by support

As the cancer was present in his lungs, lymph nodes and backbone, Adrian’s treatment commenced with chemotherapy combined with daily oral targeted therapy. Adrian’s once-hectic lifestyle was drastically altered by his cancer treatment.

“When I first started treatment, I put everything on hold and did nothing but recover and chill at home,” he says. “I was lucky to have really good insurance, so I could be worry-free financially. My mum was also with me and I focused on living a stress-free life with good sleep, going to bed by 8.30pm.”

Once a foodie who enjoyed sashimi — now off-limits due to the risk of bacterial contamination — Adrian began a strict diet of mostly steamed food and cutting out salt, sugar and red meat in a bid to stay as healthy as possible. Too exhausted to attend his favourite spinning classes or work out at the gym, he now enjoys taking a stroll around the garden downstairs for 30 minutes a day.

Adrian drew strength from his mother’s steadfast presence and her loving companionship, especially during chemotherapy sessions. While he often visited her and took her on overseas holidays in the past, she was now caring for him in his home — just as she used to do when he was a little boy.

“Having my mum around brought back a lot of childhood memories,” he smiles. “Without this situation, I’d probably not be as close to my mum and other family members, but now I get in touch with them almost daily.”

There was also an outpouring of care from friends and acquaintances, online and in real life. “When I posted my diagnosis on social media, some of my former cabin crew colleagues reached out. One of them also had Stage 4 cancer but has gone into remission. She’s since become my yoga buddy,” he says, adding that his friends continue to offer support in little ways that have helped him to understand who and what matters in life. “For example, they’d fetch me home from my chemotherapy sessions, or offer to ferry me around if I need to buy something,” he says.

One of Adrian’s most treasured pieces of advice, however, came from a stranger — a friend of a friend, who was a cancer survivor living in Kuala Lumpur. “She said to me, ‘Tell yourself every day that you’re great, you’re awesome’,” he shares. “Initially, I thought that was silly, but I’ve been saying it to myself when I wake up in the morning and it really does help, especially on days when I don’t have much energy and don’t feel like getting up. It’s good to start your day with good energy and intentions, because at the end of it all, the choice to be happy is ours.”

The power of a positive mindset

Buoyed by the support he has been receiving, Adrian is determined to make the most of life. “When the doctor told me I had Stage 4 cancer, one of the first things in my mind was ‘Oh dear, I haven’t seen the world yet.’ I’ve been to over 60 cities, but there are still so many more cities to see. I have a lot of things I still want to do!,” he says. “I’ve decided not to hold back. Likewise, if there are things you want to do, just do them.”

Adrian is able to travel because since end-2023, he has transitioned to the maintenance phase of his treatment, with chemotherapy sessions once every three weeks together with his oral targeted therapy pills. His recent review was almost clear, with one small growth of about 2.5cm remaining in his left lung. “Now that I feel better, I’m not as strict with food,” he confesses. “Once in a while I treat myself to something I enjoy — like McDonald’s! I’ve also started working out again with a personal trainer.”

At the moment, Adrian is approaching his cancer like it’s a chronic disease. “I take my pills and go for treatment, but my life still goes on,” he says. “People are often very wary when they hear ‘cancer’ and they think that they’ll die. But like what my oncologist told me, it’s not a death sentence. We need to be optimistic, and to know that this journey is not one we should be alone on — it’s good to have family and friends who offer their support.”

POSTED IN Life after Cancer, Up Close and Personal
TAGS cancer positive thinking, cancer survivorship, lung cancer, lung infection, stage 4 cancer