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Outside the Lab Profession

Auld Lang Syne: A Song of Life

Hit "play" below to listen to this article in the author's own words.

Since 1995, I have posted regularly on Chinese social media and blogging platforms, frequently producing short articles on medical science and health education for a Chinese immigrant audience as part of my role as an instructor of transplant research at the University of Chicago. In 2001, I became a pathology resident and, eventually, a board-certified and licensed pathologist. I began to write posts related to cancer and infectious diseases, in particular a series of seven articles on breast cancer (the most common cancer in women worldwide). Since then, I have received inquiries from numerous readers, including patients and families I have never met.

One day, on my way home from work, I found a connection request link in WeChat, a Chinese social network platform similar to Facebook . After setting up the link and engaging in a short exchange, my WeChat friend told me that she had first contacted me 13 years ago via the China Digest forum. She was, in fact, a breast cancer patient who had had a consultation with me!

“After I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the end of 2006,” she explained, “I contacted you about my diagnosis and treatment issues through several emails. You responded and helped me a lot…”

“Wow, really? I’ve personally contacted quite a few readers, but I can’t remember everyone. Is everything all right with you now?”

Instead of responding in words, she answered my question with a short video – a beautiful coloratura soprano, “O Mio Babbino Caro” from Puccini’s opera Gianni Schicchi.

Then came the words. “Everything is all right! We spoke a lot and I’m very grateful. At the time, chemotherapy had not ended, and I experienced an episode of a very bad hepatitis from the anti-cancer medication. The toxic effects almost killed me and led to a two-week hospitalization. My doctor sent me home to wait for my death! I was lucky to survive that terrible attack and come back alive and kicking. Now I am fully recovered and back at my career – and I have begun learning to sing from a professional singer in my spare time. I still take lessons from my voice teacher and am ready to seriously learn some classical opera arias.”

This famous song is one of my favorite pieces – and she sang with a beautiful voice and so much energy that I couldn’t imagine her, just 10 years ago, facing a brutal illness and painful chemotherapy treatments. I was so moved that I stopped by the side of the road to listen several times before telling her, “This is my favorite song. May I presume to ask you for more? How about ‘Memory,’ a song from the famous musical Cats?”

After a short silence, she replied.

Still no reply post, silence for a while, and soon, the “Memory” audio and video was posted on WeChat.

Listening to her singing, I still can’t help but feel the tears in my eyes. A fellow Chinese reader, patient, and – most importantly – survivor remembered me and felt moved to share with me her story of success. What a magical world we live in! I could not have been prouder or happier than to see a former patient singing with such power and energy. And I hope to have the privilege of helping more patients find the strength and courage to face their diseases as she did. Life is unfair and unfortunate to some – but this patient is one who made it.

Ten years after her breast cancer was eliminated, she texted me that she had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. We exchanged emails on and off, discussing her medical issues and treatment plan. She underwent chemotherapy again but, this time, she tolerated it well and the cancer responded significantly. Her tumor markers dropped almost to normal levels and imaging studies showed that the tumor mass had shrunk dramatically after completion of the first cycle of chemotherapy!

The day she finished chemotherapy and repeated tumor marker testing, she texted me again. “Hi, Dr. He! Today my doctor gave me good news: I am fine now; I can go back to work; and, most importantly, I can sing again! I’ll keep singing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ – a song of life!”

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About the Author
Gang He

Consultant pathologist at Harlem Hospital—Columbia University/NYU-LI Long Island Community Hospital, New York, USA.

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