And the Story of A Millionaire Plastic Surgeon from Singapore With Lung Cancer
I have just finished reading this great book written by my favourite author – a wise and great man. He is a Jewish rabbi.
Then, I found an article in my mail box. Testimony from Singaporean, Dr Richard Teo, Plastic Surgeon, 40 years old … I almost deleted it thinking it was yet another “junk” mail. But his name attracted my attention. After all I am also a Teo – perhaps, people might think he is my brother! So let me reproduce this email and share with you the story of my “brother” (no blood relationship though).
Dr Richard Teo Keng Siang, was 40-year-old millionaire and cosmetic surgeon. He was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. This is the transcript of his talk at the Dental Christian Fellowship on 24 Nov 2011.
HIS BACKGROUND: Hi good morning to all of you. My voice is a bit hoarse from the chemotherapy, so please bear with me. I thought I’ll just introduce myself. My name is Richard. I’m a friend of Danny, who invited me here.
I’d just begin to say that I’m a typical product of today’s society. Before this, I was talking about how the media influences us, etc. So I’m a typical product of what the media portrays. From young, I’ve always been under the influence and impression that to be happy, is to be successful. And to be successful, is to be wealthy. So I led my life according to this motto.
Coming from a poor average family, back in those days, I was highly competitive, whether in sports, studies, leadership. I wanted it all. I’ve been there, done that. But at the end of the day, it’s still about money.
So in my recent last years, I was a trainee in ophthalmology, but I was getting impatient, cos I had friends of mine who were going out into private practise, making tonnes of money. And there I was, stuck in a traineeship. So I said, ‘Enough, it’s getting too long.’ At that time, there was a surge in protégés of aesthetic medicine. I’m sure you’re aware, aesthetic medicine had peaked over the last few years, and I saw good money in there. So much so that I said, ‘Forget about ophthalmology, I’m gonna do aesthetic medicine.’ So that’s what I did.
The truth is, nobody makes heroes out of the average GP in the neighbourhood. They don’t. They make heroes out of rich celebrities, politicians, rich and famous people. So I wanted to be one of these. I dived straight into aesthetic medicine. People were not willing to pay when I was doing locum back in those days. Anything more than $30, they would complain that “Wah, this lo kun (doctor) jing qwee (very expensive)”. They made noise and they were not happy. But the same people were willing to pay $10,000 for a liposuction. So I said, ‘Well, let’s stop healing the sick, I’m gonna become a beautician; a medically-trained beautician.’
And that was what I did – liposuction, breast augmentation, eyelid surgeries, you name it, we do it. It was very good money. My clinic, when we started off, waiting time was 1 week; 1 month; became 2 months; became 3 months. There was so much demand that people were literally queuing up to have aesthetic work done on them. Vain women – easy life!
So the clinic grew. I was so overwhelmed, from 1 doctor, I employed 2, then 3, then 4 doctors, and carried on. Nothing is ever enough. I wanted more and more and more. So much so that we set up shop in Indonesia to lure all the Indonesian tai tai’s. We set up shop, set up a team of people there, to get more Indonesian patients to come in.
So, things were doing well. I’m there, my time has arrived.
Around some time in February last year, I said, ‘OK, I have so much spare cash, it’s time to get my first Ferrari. So there I was, getting ready for the deposit. ‘OK! There comes my first Ferrari!’ I was looking for land, to share with some of my friends. I have a banker friend who makes $5 million a year. So I thought, ‘Come, let’s come together. Let’s buy some land and build our houses.’
I was at my prime, getting ready to enjoy. At the same time, my friend Danny had a revival. They were going back to church, some of my close friends. They told me, ‘Richard, come, join us, come back to church.’
I have been a Christian for 20 years; I was baptised 20 years ago, but it was because it was fashionable to be a Christian then. All my friends were becoming Christians then. It was fashionable! I wanted to be baptised, so that when I filled in a form, I could put there “Christian” – feels good. In truth, I had never had a Bible; I don’t know what the Bible is all about.
I went to church for a while, after some time, I got tired. I said it’s time to go to NUS, stop going to church. I had a lot more things to pursue in NUS – girls, studies, sports, etc. After all, I had achieved all these things without God today, so who needs God? I myself can achieve anything I want.
In my arrogance, I told them, “You know what? You go tell your pastor to change your sermon to 2 p.m. I will consider coming to church.” Such arrogance! And I said 1 statement in addition to that – till to date, I don’t know if I’ve regretted saying that – I told Danny and my friends, “If God really wanted me to come back to church, He will give me a sign.”. Lo and behold, 3 weeks later, I was back at church.
THE DIAGNOSIS: In March 2011, out of the blues – I was still running around, ‘cause I’m a gym freak and I always go to the gym training, running, swimming 6 days a week. I had some backache, and that’s all I had, but it was persistent. And so I went for an MRI to exclude prolapsed disc. And the day before I had my scan, I was still in the gym, lifting heavy weights, doing my squats. And the next day, they found that half my spine had bone marrow replacement. I said, “Woah, sorry, what’s that?”
We had a PET scan the next day, and they diagnosed that I had terminal lung cancer, stage 4B. It had spread to the brain, half the spine, whole of my lungs were filled with tumour, liver, adrenals…
I said, “Can’t be, I was just at the gym last night, what’s going on?” I’m sure you know how it feels – though I’m not sure if you know how it feels. One moment I was there at the peak, the next day, this news came and I was totally devastated. My whole world just turned upside down.
I couldn’t accept it. I have a hundred relatives on both sides, my mom and my dad. A hundred of them. And not a single one has cancer. To me, in my mind, I have good genes, I’m not supposed to be having this! Some of my relatives are heavy chain smokers. Why am I having lung cancer? I was in denial.
ENCOUNTER WITH GOD: So the next day, I was still in a state of denial, still unable to accept what was going on. There I was lying in an operating theatre in a hospital, for a needle biopsy (for histology). There I was, just completed the biopsy, and lying in the operating theatre. The nurses and doctors had left; they told me I had to wait for 15 minutes to do a chest X-ray to make sure there’s no pneumothorax (a complication).
And there I was, lying on the operating table, staring blankly at the ceiling in a cold, quiet operating theatre. Suddenly I heard an inner voice; it was not like coming from the outside. It was from inside – this small inner voice that I had never felt before. And it said very specifically “This has to happen to you, at your prime, because it’s the only way you can understand.”
I said, “Woah, why did that come from?” You know, when you speak to yourself, you’d say, “OK, what time should I leave this place? Where shall I have dinner after this?” You’d speak from a first person point of view. You don’t say, “Where should YOU go after this?” Whereas the voice that came spoke as a third party. It said, “This has to happen to YOU, at YOUR prime, because this is the only way YOU can understand.” At that time, my emotions just overflowed and I broke down and cried, alone there. And I knew then, subsequently, what it means - to understand why this is the only way.
Because I had been so proud of myself, my whole life, I needed nobody else. I was gifted with things that I could do, why do I need anybody else? I was just so full of myself that there was no other way I could have turned back to God.
In fact, if I were diagnosed with stage 1 or 2, I would have been looking around busily for the best cardiothoracic surgeon, remove a section of the lobe (do a lobectomy), do preventive chemotherapy. The chances of it being cured is extremely high. Who needs God? But I had stage 4B. No man can help, only God can.
A series of events happened after that. I wasn’t sold after that inner voice. No I wasn’t. To me, it was just ‘maybe there was a voice; or maybe that was just me talking to myself.’ I didn’t buy the story.
What happened next was that I was being prepared for chemotherapy. I started off with a whole brain radiation therapy first; takes about 2 -3 weeks. In the meantime they prepared me for chemotherapy, supplements, etc. One of the things they used for chemo was a thing Zometa. Zometa. They use it to strengthen the bones; once the bone marrow is cured of cancer cells, it becomes hollow, so we need Zometa to strengthen the bone to prevent compression fractures.
One of the side effects of Zometa is that it can cause osteonecrosis (bone death) of the jaw, and I had to have my wisdom teeth removed. Years ago, I had my upper wisdom teeth removed, cos it was giving me trouble. The lower ones didn’t give me trouble so I said, “Forget it, just leave it.” So of course, Danny volunteered to remove it for me.
So there I was, lying there in a dental chair, asking myself, suffering all the side effects of radiotherapy, and now I have to go through wisdom tooth surgery. As if I’ve not had enough to suffer! So I asked Danny, “Eh, bro, is there any other way? Can I not go though this?” He said, “Yes, you can pray.”
I said, “What’s there to lose? Ok lah, pray lah!” And so we prayed. And we did an X-ray after that. Everything was all there, all the appliances and everything. And lo and behold, the X-ray showed that there was no wisdom teeth in the lower jaw. I know most people have 4 wisdom teeth, maybe some have none, but to be missing one or 2, as I understand – I’m not too sure, as I understand – is not that common.
Still I was, “Nah, I don’t care about that.” To me, as long as I didn’t have to take out the tooth, I was happy. At that point, I still wasn’t sold on prayers. Maybe it was just a coincidence – for whatever it’s worth.
I continued meeting my oncologist, asking him, “How long do I have?” I asked him. He said, not more than 6 months. I said, “Even with chemotherapy?” About 3 – 4 months, he said.
I couldn’t grasp that. It was difficult to come to terms. And even as I went through radiotherapy, I was struggling every day, especially when I wake up, hoping that it’s just a nightmare; when I wake up, it’s all over.
As I was struggling, day after day, I went into depression, which is the typical denial, depression blah blah blah that you go through. But for 1 reason, I don’t know why, there was this specific day that I was supposed to meet my oncologist. At about 2 p.m., I felt this sudden surge of peace, comfort, and in fact, a little happiness. It was just overflowing. For no rhyme or reason, it just came about 2pm, as I was getting ready, dressing up to meet my oncologist. So much so that I told all my friends, “Bros, I just feel so good suddenly! I don’t know why, it just came!”
And it was only days, or was it weeks after, that Danny revealed to me that he had fasted for 2 days for me and he ended his fast at that exact same point, about 2 p.m. thereabouts, that this surge of sensation came to me for no rhyme or reason. And I didn’t know that he was fasting for me. And when he ended the fast, I felt that sensation!
Whoa, things were getting a bit too coincidental. I was starting to buy a bit of the story, but still I wasn’t sold. As days passed by, I completed my radiotherapy, about 2 weeks plus. Getting ready for chemo, so they let me rest for a few days.
Lung cancer has the highest mortality rate. Breast, colorectal (colon) cancer, and prostate cancer (the top few cancers in Singapore for men and women) – if you add up the mortality rate of these 3, it still doesn’t add up to lung cancer. Simply because, you understand, you can remove the prostate, the colon, the breast, but you cannot remove your lungs.
But there’s about 10% of lung cancer patients who do pretty well for some reasons, because they have this specific mutation; we call it the EGFR mutation. But still, my oncologist was still not hopeful for me to have this mutation.
The chances of it happening for me were maybe 3-4% for me to get it. That’s why I was being primed to go for chemo. But through all the intense prayers, friends like Danny, people that I don’t even know, it turned out that, during my waiting for chemo, the results came back that I was EGFR positive. I was like, “Woah, good news!” Cos now I don’t have to undergo chemo at that time, because there’s this oral tablet that you can use to control this disease.
AFTER AND BEFORE: Just to share with you some idea – this is a CT scan – thorax – of my lungs, before treatment.
Every single dot there is a tumour. You can see all the mets (metastasis) there. This is just one single plane. Literally I had it in both lungs, and I had literally tens of thousands of tumour. That’s why the oncologist told me, even with chemo, at most 3-4 months.
But because of this mutation, they have this oral medication.
At that point, I said, “Well, it’s to be expected, isn’t it? The medicine is good.” I’m still not buying the story. Well, the guys prayed for me and the tumour markers started to come down. 90% of the tumours were wiped out, and the tumour markers came down to more than 90% over the next few months.
But still, you know, once you have the clinical knowledge, you know the statistics. One year survival, two year survival; having all this knowledge is not a good thing. Cos you live with the knowledge that even with all this, the cancer cells are so unstable, they keep mutating. They will overcome and become resistant to the drugs, and eventually you’re gonna run out of medication.
So living with this knowledge is a huge mental struggle, a huge mental torture. Cancer is not just about a physical struggle, it’s a huge mental torture. How do you live with no hope? How do you live with not being able to plan for the next few years? The oncologist tells you to bear with it for the next 1 – 2 months. So it’s a lot of struggles as I went through: March, then April. April was my lowest point, in deep depression, struggling even as I was recovering.
ACCEPTANCE & PEACE: And one of those days, I was there in bed, struggling in the afternoon, asking God, “Why? Why do I have to go through this suffering? Why do I have to endure this hardship, this struggle? Why me?”
As I fell asleep, in my dreamy state, a vision just came, that says Hebrews 12:7-8.
Now mind you, at this time, I had not read the Bible. I have no clue what’s Hebrews, I don’t even know how many chapters there are. Totally clueless.
But it says Hebrews 12:7-8, very specifically.
I didn’t think too much of it. I just continued sleeping. Then I woke up, and I said, “What’s there to lose? I’d just check it out lah!” Danny had bought me a Bible; it’s still quite new. I said, “It’s ok, just try.” So I flipped to the Old Testament. Hebrews to me sounds like something ancient, so it should be in the Old Testament right? So I flipped through the Old Testament. No Hebrews there. I was disappointed.
Then I said, “Maybe New Testament, let’s have a look!” WOW – New Testament, there’s Hebrew!! Hebrews 12:7-8 says, “Endure hardship as discipline as God is treating you as His children.”
I said, “WAH!! Where did that come from?” I was getting goose pimples all over my body. I said, “This can’t be, right?” I mean, what’s the chance of somebody, who has never read the Bible, to have a vision of a specific verse that answers my question directly?
I think God had called to me directly as I was there sleeping, struggling with it, asking God, “Why do I have to suffer? Why do I have to suffer this?” And God says “Endure hardship as discipline as God is treating you as His child.”
At this point, the chance of that happening is even lesser than my EGFR being positive. There’s just no way; there’s so many thousands of verses in the Bible, how can I just conjure up something like that?
So at that point, I was sold I said, “YOU WIN! YOU WIN!!”
Ok , I was convinced. And so from that day onwards, I started believing in my God. And the last time I heard that inner voice was the end of April. And that inner voice, same thing, in the afternoon, as I was sleeping (this time I wasn’t struggling, just going to sleep). In a dreamy state I just heard Him say, “Help others in hardship.”
It was more like a command, rather than a statement. And that’s when I embarked on this journey, helping others in hardship. And I realised that hardship is not just about being poor. In fact, I think a lot of poor people are probably happier than a lot of us here. They are so easily contented with whatever they have, they’re probably pretty happy.
Hardship can happen to rich people; it can be physical hardship, mental hardship, social, etc. And also over the last few months, I started to understand what this true joy is about. In the past, I substituted true joy with the pursuing of wealth. I thought true joy is about pursuing wealth. Why? Cos let me put it to you this way, in my death bed, I found no joy whatsoever in whatever objects I had – my Ferrari, thinking of the land I was going to buy to build my bungalow, etc, having a successful business. It brought me ZERO comfort, ZERO joy, nothing at all.
True joy comes from interaction with other people. And at a lot of times, it is a short term pride, the past. When you pursue your wealth, Chinese New Year is the best time to do it. Drive my Ferrari, showing off to my relatives, showing off to my friends, do my rounds, and then you thought that was true joy? And your relatives, wow, they share this joy with you? In truth, what you have done is just to illicit envy, jealousy, and even hatred. They are not sharing the joy with you, and what I have is that short-term pride that wow, I have something you don’t have! And I thought that was joy!
So what we have is basically a short-term pride at the expense of somebody else. And that wasn’t true joy. And I found no joy at all on my deathbed, thinking of my Ferrari – to hold on to it, sayang it?!?
True joy I discovered comes from interaction. Over the last few months I was so down. Interaction with my loved ones, my friends, my brothers in Christ, my sisters in Christ, and only then was I able to be motivated, able to be uplifted. To share your sorrow, to share your happiness – that’s true joy.
And you know what makes you smile? True joy comes from helping others in hardship, and because I’ve gone through this, I know what hardship entails. In fact, there’re some cancer patients who tell me a lot of times, people come up to them and tell them, “Stay positive. Stay positive.” Yah, right. You come in my shoes and you try to stay positive! You don’t know what you’re talking about!
But I have the licence. So I’ve been going out to meet other fellow cancer patients, to share with them, encourage them. And I know, because I’ve been through it, and it’s easier for me to talk to them.
And most importantly, I think true joy comes from knowing God. Not knowing about God – I mean, you can read the Bible and know about God – but knowing God personally; having a relationship with God. I think that’s the most important. That’s what I’ve learnt.
So if I were to sum it up, I’d say that the earlier we sort out the priorities in our lives, the better it is. Don’t be like me – I had no other way. I had to learn it through the hard way. I had to come back to God to thank Him for this opportunity because I’ve had 3 major accidents in my past – car accidents. You know, these sports car accidents – I was always speeding , but somehow I always came out alive, even with the car almost being overturned. And I wouldn’t have had a chance. Who knows, I don’t know where else I’d be going to! Even though I was baptised it was just a show, but the fact that this has happened, it gave me a chance to come back to God.
Few things I’d learnt though:
1. Trust in the Lord your God with all your heart – this is so important.
2. To love and serve others, not just ourselves.
There is nothing wrong with being rich or wealthy. I think it’s absolutely alright, cos God has blessed us. So many people are blessed with good wealth, but the trouble is I think a lot of us can’t handle it. The more we have, the more we want. I’ve gone through it, the deeper the hole we dig, the more we get sucked into it, so much so that we worship wealth and lose focus. Instead of worshipping God, we worship wealth. It’s just a human instinct. It’s just so difficult to get out of it.
We are all professionals, and when we go into private practise, we start to build up our wealth – inevitably. So my thought were, when you start to build up wealth and when the opportunity comes, do remember that all these things don’t belong to us. We don’t really own it nor have rights to this wealth. It’s actually God’s gift to us. Remember that it’s more important to further His Kingdom rather than to further ourselves.
Anyway I think that I’ve gone through it, and I know that wealth without God is empty. It is more important that you fill up the wealth, as you build it up subsequently, as professionals and all, you need to fill it up with the wealth of God.
I think that’s about it. It’s good to share. Thanks.
(Note: He was diagnosed with stage 4B lung cancer in March 2011. He was told he had 3-4 months to live but he lived for another 19 months. He died on 18 October 2012.)
In When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough, Rabbi Harold Kushner asked, Was there something I was supposed to do with my life? Let me quote what he wrote:
- This book is not about how to be happy or how to be popular. There are a lot of other books to do that. It is about how to be successful, but not in the way most people use the word… It is about how to know that you have lived as a human being was meant to live, that you have not wasted you life. It is a book about giving your life meaning, feeling that you have used your time on earth well and not wasted it, and that the world will be different for your having passed through it.
- Ask the average person what he wants out of life, and he will probably reply, “All I want is to be happy.”
- Even the rich and powerful find themselves yearning for something more. We keep thinking that if we had what they have, we would be happy…. For all the outward trappings of success, they feel hollow inside. They can never rest and enjoy their accomplishments. They need one new success after another.
- Our souls are not hungry for fame, comfort, wealth, or power. Those rewards create almost as many problems as they solve. Our souls are hungry for meaning.
- What frustrates us and robs our lives of joy is this absence of meaning. Our lives go on day after day. But do they mean anything? Is there anything more to life than just being alive…What does life mean? Does our being alive matter? We will find ourselves sick, lonely and afraid if we cannot answer them.
- What we miss in our lives, no matter how much we have, is that sense of meaning. We may have all the things on our wish list and still feel empty. We may have reached the top of our professions and still feel that something is missing.
- The need for meaning is not a biological need like the need for food and air. Neither is it a psychological need, like the need for acceptance and self-esteem. It is a religious need, an ultimate thirst of our soul.
- The question of whether life has meaning, or whether our individual lives make any real difference, is a religious question not because it is about matters of belief or attendance at worship services but because it is about ultimate values and ultimate concerns. The pursuit of happiness is the wrong goal. You don’t become happy by pursuing happiness. You become happy by living a life that means something.
- The happiest people you know are probably not the richest or most famous, probably not the ones who work hardest at being happy by reading the articles or buying books and latching on to the latest fads. I suspect that the happiest people you know are the ones who work at being kind, helpful, and reliable – and happiness sneaks into their lives while they are busy doing those things.
- You don’t become happy by pursuing happiness. It is always a by-product, never a primary goal. Happiness is a butterfly – the more you chase it, the more it flies away from you and hides. But stop chasing it, put away you net and busy yourself with other more productive things than the pursuit of personal happiness, and it will sneak up on you from behind and perch on your shoulder.
- And worst of all, society applauds this imbalance, honouring us for our financial success, praising us for our self-sacrifice.
- In the Bible, the sin of idolatry is not just a matter of bowing down to statues. Idol worship is treating the work of your own hands as if it were divine, worshipping yourself as the highest source of value and creativity … believing that you have enough power to control the world in which you live and the other people who live in it.
- Hell is having worked so hard for success that it corroded your relationship with other people so that you learned to see them only in terms of what they could do for you … hell is the loneliness of having everything and knowing that it is still not enough.
- When you have learned how to live, life itself is the reward. It is a sign of maturity when we stop asking, What does life have in store for me? And start asking, What am I doing with my life?
- How do you overcome the fear of dying? he asked me. I told him that I was not ready to die, that I hope to live for many more years, but that I was not afraid of dying because I felt satisfied with what I had done with my life. I had the sense that I had not wasted it, that I had lived with integrity, had done my best, and had an impact on people which would outlast me. It is only when you are no longer afraid to die that you can say that you are truly alive. The final ingredient which enables us to say, “I have lived and my life mattered,” is the knowledge that we have made a difference. Nobody on his deathbed ever said, I wish I had spent more time on my business.
- Who needs God? Can we deal with the issue of life’s ultimate meaning without reference to God? The existence of God in not the issue; the difference God can make in our lives is.
- In the same way that the human body is fashioned so that certain foods and certain kinds of activity are healthier for us than others, I believe that God made the human soul in such a way that certain kinds of behaviour are healthier for us than others. Jealousy, selfishness and mistrust poison the soul; honesty, generosity, and cheerfulness restore it. We literally feel better after we have gone out of our way to be helpful to someone.
- God is the answer not because He will intervene to reward the righteous and punish the wicked but because He has made the human soul in such a way that only a life of goodness and honesty leaves us feeling spiritually healthy and human.
Over the years – 16 plus years, I have all kind of people coming to CA Care for help. Some were wealthy and famous. Some had impressive tittles in front and behind their names. But some were plain simple folks with no viable income at all. Some were nice and gentle while others were outright abusive and rude. Some cherished the idea that they did not have to pay anything talking to me, while others were happy that they had to pay very, very much less for their medicines than if they were to see their oncologist.
In short, I have seen them all – human beings in all their forms, attitudes and human values. But what made my heart bleed is to see those “high and mighty” coming to us with terminal cancer – their medical reports and scans showed that they may not make it through three to six months – yet they have not learned or realized that living life is more than just money. These people (not that they don’t have money) would call wanting to return the herbs (how much was that worth? RM 200 or RM 400?and you do that with your doctors do you?) that they bought after they did not get the results they expected, even if they had already lived six months or more!
But fortunately we have learnt early that CA Care is just a door mat. Some come to us expecting to extract the maximum they can squeeze from us! Some came in a BMW or Mercedes and still asked for special discount! We know that is the way life is!
May many of us learn and benefit from the story above and the wisdom of Rabbi Kushner.