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A couple fights lung cancer the best way they know how — together

At first, Michelle Li’s primary-care physician said she was suffering from the stomach flu and dispatched her with cough medicine and antibiotics in hand. Her condition worsened over the next week or so, but the diagnosis stayed the same.
Then, on Aug. 1, 2018, she was directed to the emergency room, where a doctor told her and her husband, Jay Chen, that she was facing advanced lung cancer that had spread throughout her body. Her liver and kidneys were failing. She might not survive the night. But she did.
Throughout the last part of 2018, the couple’s path was beset by such dire moments. There was surgery to remove a brain tumor about the size of a Brazil nut, and a trip to the City of Hope intensive care unit requiring intubation and emergency surgery. However, Li’s health and well-being have improved over the intervening years with chemotherapy and immunotherapy directed by Ravi Salgia, M.D., Ph.D., City of Hope’s Arthur & Rosalie Kaplan Chair in Medical Oncology and professor and chair of Medical Oncology & Therapeutics Research. Spirits buoyed, Li and her husband navigate the perils of advanced cancer as a team while championing patients in their own community.
Chen, a bank executive based in Walnut, California, shares their story as Li looks forward to bearing the standard of hope for patients like her as a part of City of Hope’s delegation at the 2022 Rose Parade.
What inspires you and Michelle when things get difficult?
Our faith is important to us. We also believe in our doctor. Most important, we remember that the human body is amazing. Michelle believes in herself. She’s a fighter, so we think she can conquer this disease.
I believe we can keep going. That’s my hope. Michelle’s diagnosis is stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer. The statistics say the survival rate is less than 1%. We want to be in that less than 1%. Michelle’s still here, and I’m very happy about that.
We work as a family. That’s the only way to get through it. It’s not easy, but so far, so good.
Why did Michelle seek treatment at City of Hope?
We had seen the advertising, and fortunately it is also close to where we live.
I knew the moment we walked in that we were in the right place. The day of our first appointment, a nurse-practitioner was able to identify that my wife had a brain tumor, something our previous oncologist had missed for weeks.
How would you characterize your and Michelle’s experience with City of Hope overall?
The nurses and the staff there are very friendly. They don’t treat you as a patient; they treat you as a family member. They check in with us, say, “How are you?” or “Haven’t seen you in a while.” And they always go the extra mile to help us.
Who has made a particularly big difference in Michelle’s treatment?
Dr. Salgia — he really cares. For Michelle as a cancer patient, and for me as a caregiver, we felt very vulnerable. We didn’t know what to do, especially for late-stage cancer. Dr. Salgia really gives us comfort. As long as he is there, we feel that we’ll be fine.
Michelle Li
Michelle Li
He’s told us that he is aggressive but conservative in planning her treatment. He is aggressive because he will try different things to make sure Michelle survives, but he is conservative because he will also make sure that her health is not damaged by the treatment. By now, I’ve referred more than 20 patients to Dr. Salgia.
I also have to mention Dr. Brian Tiep [director of pulmonary rehabilitation and of the Smoking Cessation Program at City of Hope]. With lung cancer, Michelle’s breathing can be very weak. But after just two sessions being coached by Dr. Tiep, her breathing actually improved by more than a factor of four [on a pulmonary function test]! We call him a super genius. It’s amazing that lung function can come back so rapidly.
You mentioned referring patients to City of Hope. Why do you do that?
From our experience with City of Hope, we know that a good doctor really makes all the difference.
I’ll give you an example. I know someone from church who was told by their doctor that they had liver cancer. They went to City of Hope and found out that it was actually lung cancer. The previous doctor told them they had only six months to live. That was in 2019, and they’re still running around today thanks to City of Hope.
I think helping to save people’s lives is the most valuable thing you can do. So I will continue to do that.