When Shirley Adrain was diagnosed with Advanced Stage IV Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer, it wasn’t death that terrified her. It was the idea of leaving her children without a mother and her husband without his life partner. But, fuelled by a profound love for her family, Shirley transformed fear into a fierce optimism to fight cancer and live a longer and healthier life.
It was in August 2020 when Shirley, then 51, visited her doctor with a persistent sore throat and body aches. A series of test results revealed three large tumours: two in her lungs and one covering her thyroid, and a bleak prognosis. Cancer had rapidly and aggressively spread to multiple parts of her body – her liver, bones, adrenal glands and more.
“I never imagined this would happen to me,” says Shirley, mother of Saffron, age 13, and Austin, age 7. “I’ve always maintained a healthy lifestyle: I don’t smoke; I exercise five times a week; I eat a low-carb diet and I rarely touch sugar.”
But, like many women who carry a disproportionate load during the pandemic, Shirley was under immense stress, which she believed triggered the disease.
“I was juggling home learning support with work deadlines, trying to complete a house purchase in Scotland, and navigating menopause too. I was physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. My immunity took a hit,” Shirley recounts.
Cancer experts agree. “Stress has a profound impact on how your body’s systems function,” says Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D., professor of General Oncology and Behavioral Science, and director of the Integrative Medicine Program at MD Anderson, a world-renowned cancer centre. “Health experts are still sorting out whether stress actually causes cancer. Yet there’s little doubt it promotes the growth and spread of some forms of the disease. Put simply, stress makes your body more hospitable to cancer,” Cohen says.
With no time to lose, Shirley’s steely resolve to live life on her own terms set in. “As I took stock of my life and all I’ve done to get to where I am today, I realised I always have a choice: how I react or respond to life’s challenges is up to me. I can’t allow this disease to define or defeat me. I can give my all to beat cancer one day at a time.”
Unrelentless positive attitude and determination are not new to go-getter Shirley, a former C-Suite banker who retrained extensively as an accredited executive coach and founded Career Catalyst Group – a diversity and inclusion consultancy for global organisations, as well as individuals looking to return to the workforce. “I’ve always believed I am a lucky person. I still do. But, to a large extent, we generate our own luck, and serendipity is a part of the mindset of many successful people.”
A firm advocate for taking ownership of your own journey – be it personal or professional – Shirley sprang into action to identify a team of experts to aid her recovery. These included integrative oncologists, naturopaths and dieticians across the globe who, because of the pandemic, could be consulted virtually. With her husband, David, by her side, she devised a holistic strategy that included supplements, “repurposed drugs”, daily exercise, and an immunity-boosting diet – all known to stall cancer growth.
Recognising the mind-body connection, Shirley worked on mastering her mind to continually replace fear with hope. She engaged in twice-weekly acupuncture and energy healing sessions, infrared saunas, breathing exercises, yoga and meditation, and social connection with uplifting family members and friends.
Shirley’s oncologist advised she had a genetic mutation that responds to targeted therapy. “Instead of chemotherapy, I could take one pill a day to kill off the cancer cells for one or two years. It would return, he said, but he was hopeful by then there would be new, more effective treatments.”
Initially, Shirley showed rapid and outstanding improvement. Her cancer blood markers went from extremely high to normal after two weeks of targeted therapy. Over the next few months, she continued to respond to the treatment and added intensive radiotherapy to the biggest tumours in her lung and liver. In April 2021, her doctor was amazed to find she was in total remission.
Over the Summer, Shirley was overjoyed to return to Scotland, spend time with her parents and siblings and, she says, ‘just be a normal mum’. She also set up her new holiday home.
“This is the first family house I’ve ever owned. It was important for me to prepare a home for David and the kids’ future.”
But in July, Shirley contracted COVID and, while the symptoms weren’t strong, she never fully recovered. In October, she returned to Hong Kong feeling exhausted. After completing her three-week quarantine stay, she was immediately admitted to hospital with a collapsed lung. The effectiveness of the initial targeted treatment had worn off and with her immunity compromised, cancer had once again reared its ugly head.
Today, Shirley continues to show unwavering optimism. When chemotherapy produced mixed effects, she turned to a new targeted therapy drug.
“I’m not going to waste time or energy worrying about this. I am lucky to have made it this far. I am blessed to be living in Hong Kong where we have access to amazing healthcare. And I am hopeful that with the new treatments ahead, I will live to celebrate many more years with my family.”
Shirley views cancer as by far the greatest lesson she’s ever had. “Cancer has made me question my values and revisit my life purpose. I’ve taken my experience as a message to step back and evaluate how I choose to show up in the world. My purpose is to focus on healing and share my learnings in the hope it might help others through life challenges too.”
Quoting her fellow countryman, William Wallace, Shirley says, “ ‘Every man dies. Not every man truly lives.’ – I am now committed to making the rest of my life, the best of my life.”
Published March 2022, Hong Kong Living