In Memoriam

In his own words…

Ken Chung died on Wednesday, September 27, 2017, eighteen months after being diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. He wished he had more time to think, to write, to read, to figure out what life was all about. But mostly he wanted more time to spend with his wonderful wife, Emma Abman, and to hang out with his family and friends. He considered himself to be, on the whole, a lucky man. He was 39 years old.



If you try hard at something but fail, you experience disappointment. And the harder you try, the greater the disappointment.

This is a lesson we learn when we’re young, but we spend the rest of our lives wrestling with its implications. How can we motivate ourselves to work really hard, when we know that we might fail? And the harder we work, the more bitter the failure?

Here are some ways that I have found to be promsing:

  • Try to maximize the amount of work that you enjoy doing for its own sake, and minimize the work you do only because of its results.
  • Try to find a way to love the process over the outcome.
  • Try to accept the fact that success depends on factors outside our control, and try to allow only what is within our control — for instance, the efforts we make — to affect our state of mind.
  • Try to see that we’re playing with odds here, and that even though we know that the harder we work, the greater the disappointment, greater too is the likelihood of success.

But despite all this, for me to do the hard work, I have to know that there is, at the very least, the possibility of success. It is hard to endure a struggle without at least the possibility of something good resulting from my efforts. To quote from Galatians: “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”

Here’s the thing about having terminal cancer. You will struggle but then you will die; there is no reward. There is nothing that I will reap in the end for all the efforts I make in dealing with this illness. It was always going to kill me. There is no great payoff in the end for fighting cancer bravely or with apparent wisdom. I will be dead. I will no longer exist to enjoy whatever gains there were to be had.

There is no rest either. We are fond of saying “rest in peace,” of imagining that people who die are finally allowed to rest their weary souls. We are fond of saying this even if we are atheists and believe that death is the end, that there is no person who persists after it. But how can something that does not exist rest? Do the flames rest when the fire is out?

So this is a struggle without a reward. Is this why I find it so fucking hard?

I know, though, that the struggle itself is not all dark. It’s still up to me to make an extra effort to enjoy what I can — to take an extra second to enjoy my coffee, to taste the sweet freshness in the fruits I can still eat, to cherish the warmth of friends and family, to write a word here and there.

Cancer, you will take everything from me eventually. But not yet, you fucking asshole.


Years, months, weeks

It would have taken me months to write many more essays. Years, probably, before I wrote a really good one. And it would have taken me forever to understand and figure out all that I wanted to understand and figure out.

But what I got are weeks.

The chemotherapy regimen I’ve been on, Gemcitabine, has stopped working. Blood tests show that my tumour-marker levels are rising. My pain is being managed well, but it is getting worse — it’s clear that my disease is advancing. And my appetite has diminished greatly; eating often hurts.

The most promising treatments are not all that promising. They are phase 1 clinical trials of drugs broad enough for any cancer, whose effectiveness is thus far only speculative and whose dosage has yet to be determined. So at this point, they’re more likely to do harm than good.

And because pancreatic cancer moves so quickly, what I got are weeks.

Before I had cancer, I too had years. And for the last year and a half, I had months. It was only logical that it would turn into weeks at some point. And so it happens now.

Marcus Aurelius once asked himself how he would react if a god told him that he would either die tomorrow or the day after. And he couldn’t see what difference it would make.