Author: Jiming Lindal
Doreen H. Wong passed away peacefully on June 15th, 2021 from breast cancer and Covid at the age of 48. This article is in memory of her.
#warrior #StageFourBreastCancer #MetastaticBreastCancer #AsianRehabilitationServices #disability #AsianAmerican #God #church #nonprofit #lesion #gratitude #peace #mammogram #spine #blessing #equality #suicide #advocate #SusanGKomen
She was saved by the Lord’s grace from suicidal thoughts. Her passion was to advocate equality for the ignored. She was also a brave warrior who fought against Stage Four breast cancer every day.
At the 7th Susan G Komen Annual Conference on Metastatic Breast Cancer in 2020, a woman with a medium build and a round face spoke on the stage. She was a board member of the Susan G Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and a warrior fighting Stage Four breast cancer. She is our protagonist, Doreen Wong.
Doreen was born in an Asian American family. Her father was a Chinese American raised in Hawaii. Her mother was born in Tokyo and immigrated to the US at eight. Her grandmother was a devout Christian. She told the young Doreen that God resides not only in the church but lives everywhere, and He will always live in her heart and be with her. Through her grandmother, Doreen knew God spiritually. Her childhood was healthy and happy until she was sixteen years old when a tragedy turned her life upside down.
Sixteen—she wanted to commit suicide
Entering high school, 16-year-old Doreen, like other girls of the same age, was full of curiosity about boys and yearned for puppy love. At this moment, a boy entered her life, and he was everything to her. This puppy love, like every other, soon withered. The boy left her, and her world ceased to exist.
She was standing in the bathroom crying with her box-cutter in her hand. The sharp blade was shaking in front of her eyes, and she looked at herself in the mirror, tears filling her eyes. She picked up the knife, and the box-cutter blade was only an inch away from her wrist.
"I called out to God, if there is something you need me to do, or if there's something I'm supposed to do, now is the time to let me know because I'm done."
As soon as she said these words, she felt a warm, serene, calm, and peaceful energy wrapped around her like a hug. She was immersed in the love and grace of the Lord. God heard her call and responded to her. She slowly put the cutter away, cleaned up, and went back to work.
"At this moment, life shifted for me. I felt that whatever I do, I must do it for the benefit of others. God saved me for a reason, and I need to find out why."
And this reason gradually became apparent.
"Coincidentally" entered the nonprofit organizations
After graduating from high school, Doreen was admitted to the university best suited for her, majoring in graphic art. Her dream was to work at Disney one day.
To fill up the course schedule, she took brain psychology as an elective and was fascinated by this class. She was also conducting art therapy for at-risk children. When the funds for this project were about to run out, she went to the professor and asked whether she was hiring. They chatted, and Doreen discovered that the professor ran the Pasadena City College disability services and testing for students with learning disabilities.
"The professor asked, ‘Can you field the calls for me?’ I said OK. After that, she asked, ‘Can you run some testings for me?’ I said OK. After a while, she asked, ‘Can you run intakes for these students?’ I said OK.
She kept asking me, and I kept saying OK."
At the end of the year, she already administered the tests, usually done by the Master's students. She scored tests, prepared reports for professors, and taught Master’s students how to run tests. After a couple of years, the professor asked her if she wanted more hours, that her friend ran the disability services at Los Angeles Harbor College and needed someone. Doreen said OK.
Doreen worked between the two campuses. Soon the professor asked her to run the disability services at Pasadena Adult School. She counseled students on the learning strategies and was also responsible for administering all the tests.
"From the first time I said OK, I began my journey in the nonprofit organizations. My career worked itself out. Opportunities came to me, and I just needed to say OK. I don't know if I chose the nonprofit, or the nonprofit chose me. Everything seemed to be coincidental, but it was all part of God's plan.”
Young Chairman of Board and CEO
Doreen then worked at Goodwill, running the disability services for employees and the community. There she met Tom. They were both in a meeting when Tom was the CEO of Asian Rehabilitation Services.
"Tom was advocating the old-school disability services and kept pushing his issue. I noticed that those who were not disability advocates were busy taking notes. I thought he was sending them on the wrong path. Back then, I was in my late 20s. I raised my hand and said, ‘I got what you said, but we no longer promote that in the disability rights movement.’ I saw Tom's face. He seemed to say, ‘I'm sorry, girl, do you know who I am?’ I continued to say that this may work for you, but this is not the future..."
Soon Doreen got a call from Tom. He admired Doreen's courage to contradict him in the meeting and invited her to serve on their board. Doreen couldn't believe her ears.
"I thought to myself, ‘Are you crazy? Didn't you see what I just did?’ Tom said that ‘Obviously, you are the future of the disability rights movement. If ARS is to keep up the pace, we must know what it is.’"
The board was filled with distinguished people from different walks of business, and Doreen was just a fledgling.
Tom planned the first fundraising event, “HaHa Hollywood.” The entire board told him that he must cancel the event because no one would come.
"I raised my hand again and said, ‘Before canceling, I want to ask you how many tables have you sold?’ They all looked at me. I said again, ‘I see Tom hustling to sell tables. If we each sell one table, that's ten tables. If you tell Tom to cancel because of a lack of trying on the board's part, it's not fair to him.’"
The board agreed, and there was the first "Haha Hollywood" fundraising event.
Afterward, the chairman took Doreen to lunch. Because he was about to step down, he asked Doreen if she would take over. He told Doreen that when she defended Tom, she opened a new chapter for the organization.
Doreen became the chairman of the board, only 30 years old.
Tom often consulted Doreen, exchanged ideas, and explored the direction of the disability rights movement. When Tom decided to retire, he asked Doreen if she was interested in serving as the CEO of ARS. Doreen said OK. She resigned from the position of chairman and took the post of CEO of the organization.
She didn't understand the full scope of it. But she did it. Under her leadership, the organization went from a monthly deficit of $25,000 to a monthly surplus of $2,000 within three months. She also established more partnerships with other nonprofit organizations in the community.
Just as she was zealously managing ARS, another news awaited her.
One day in 2006, Doreen looked at herself in the mirror and discovered that her right breast was deformed as if a piece of it was protruding. She immediately had a mammogram, found a lump, and then had a biopsy.
It was Stage Three breast cancer.
Doreen cried for two weeks. She couldn't accept this. Just like when she was 16, she stood in front of the bathroom mirror.
"I said to God, ‘If I've done everything you need me to do, then I am ready to go home. If I haven't accomplished everything I was supposed to do, please give me the strength, the wisdom, and the fortitude that I need to fight.’"
Just like when she was 16 years old, she felt a warm and peaceful embrace.
"I know that no matter the situation, God will keep protecting me."
Doreen, who was suffering from cancer, was not depressed. She was still working while in treatment and continued to manage ARS for another three years. Later, Doreen went to the Asian Youth Center and served as executive director. She restructured the center and boosted morale after two key personnel passed away. It was then that her father became ill.
The death of her father
“My father was an Asian man of 6'2" tall. When I grew up, my friends always asked why my father was so tall. He served in the Air Force, was athletic, and liked fishing and repairing things. He was quiet, and unless he knew you, he didn't talk much. When my sister and I needed to move, he always helped us lift the heavy furniture. But one day, he told us that he wasn't able to help because his body was too weak."
When Doreen's father went to the hospital for a checkup, he was already in the advanced stage of liver cancer, and the cancer cells had spread to the spine.
“He shrank to a size medium, became shorter, and lost his mobility. I looked at him and couldn't bear to cry. At a family meeting, he told my sister and me that he could no longer hold on to continue treatment. As I was growing up, he always taught us to keep on fighting, not to give up. If we fall, we need to stand up again. Hearing him say this and seeing him taken by cancer broke my heart."
"The moment my father died, I woke up and knew that he was gone."
Step into the church
A week after Doreen's father passed away, a pastor of a church her mother knew presided over the memorial service. Many brothers and sisters in the church organized the service, and it was peaceful and warm.
“I felt a piece missing in my heart where my parents are. It's just empty. Although I can fill it with funny stories and memories, I only feel the pain of loss."
Doreen's mother began to participate in the widow's group, which she found helpful. Doreen would accompany her mother to attend some of the church activities and listen to the sermons. She longed for a deeper connection with God. She and her mother often talked about God, and her narrative began to change.
“Attending church made it easier for me to grieve for my dad, and I know that he is in Heaven with his family, including his dad. He no longer has the pain, the sickness, and the concerns of this world."
Brothers and sisters prayed for Doreen and her family. With gratitude, Doreen began to pray for others. She believed in the power of prayer, and the presence of God gave her great peace. She sometimes posted pictures of her dad on social media, and the memories would come up, but there was no more sadness.
Breast cancer metastasis-death and life
At the end of 2017, Doreen and her husband Steve were shopping in the mall when she suddenly felt a sharp pain in her lower back, as if something had burst. In the following days, it became more and more difficult for her to walk. At the beginning of 2018, Doreen started seeking medical treatment and figuring out why she couldn't move around and why the pain did not stop. In the late summer, her family doctor took X-rays of her lower back and hips.
Doreen's family doctor was not there that day, and a young doctor substituted him. He was nervous, “We saw your film... and found some lesions..." Doreen replied calmly, “Oh, my cancer is back. I need a referral, and I'd like to go there. How soon can this happen?" The young doctor looked at Doreen sympathetically, “You know you can cry...”
Doreen no longer wanted to cry. She was ready. Stage Four breast cancer had metastasized to the bones, and the doctor did not know how long she would live.
“No one knows how long she can live. From the moment we are born, death rides side-saddle to us in the passenger seat on our car, on our journey of life. She is always there, but we don't acknowledge it in our ignorance or arrogance. At any moment, death can say, ‘It's time.’"
Because of her condition, many people asked her if she was fearful. She told them she had no fear because Heaven brought her hope. Her peace amazed them.
However, her journey was not all roses or glitters. Especially after she had radiation, she would ask herself whether she could still keep on fighting. She reminded herself what she was fighting for and told herself to get to the next minute, hold on for another minute, yet another minute. She had to keep taking those tiny steps until she could think about gratitude and faith for five minutes, not focusing on the pain. Sometimes it was minute to minute, and sometimes it could be hour to hour.
Her skeleton had multiple lesions, and her husband called her a porcelain doll. If he hugged her too tight, or the cat lay on her the wrong way, her bones would splinter. She suffered multiple fractures throughout her body, but she was still grateful.
“I'm looking for the blessings even though it may not be what I've expected. I choose to be grateful, and the fact that I'm walking is a huge blessing. My oncologist said that based on the condition of my spine, I shouldn't be walking. However, she can't explain why I'm still walking and look healthy. That can only be God because He has allowed that."
She lived by grace.
“You have to look at life today, what can you do today, to make the best of it, because no one can promise tomorrow. I see it as a blessing to be a blessing to someone else."
A blessing to others
She called herself a "warrior" because the warrior is ready for the battle at any time. "Warrior" also means a big picture -- she doesn't have to fight alone because there are more warriors, locking arms, fighting this battle together.
At the 7th Susan G Komen Annual Conference on Metastatic Breast Cancer in 2020, she told a story to the audience.
“When I went to MRI in 2018, I saw a young woman dragging a two-year-old child to register. The nurse told her that she could not bring the child during the MRI. She had to ask someone to look after the child. I saw tears in that woman's eyes, and she said that she had no money to hire someone. She couldn't feed her child if she hired someone.
This incident touched me deeply. No parent, no one, should make such a difficult choice between feeding their children and receiving help. That is huge inequality."
She was determined to speak up for the disadvantaged, remove the barriers to their access to equal services, and find resources that could help them.
After the meeting, several women approached Doreen, hoping to keep in touch with her because they had no help from others. Doreen gave them her number and occasionally checked in with them to see how they were doing. When they asked her for a connection to resources, she tried to bridge it for them.
2020 was an unprecedented year, but it also gave Doreen clarity. In 2021, she hoped to encourage patients to live thriving lives.
“In the breast cancer community, no one talks about thriving. Once you finish the fight and treatment, you are done. There's no support group to talk about the emotional impact of breast cancer, how do you get past the stage of hair loss, and whether your hair will come back like before? How do you deal with the scars, because that can be traumatic for people.”
Doreen wanted to change the status quo and provide more education and support for breast cancer patients.
It was three years since Doreen was diagnosed with Stage Four breast cancer in 2018. Her life didn't stop there. She kept moving forward and wanted to make it possible for more people to thrive.