“It all started when I went to the doctor to get rid of an ear infection. After taking medicine, my ear felt better but my nose was still completely stuffed up. I could have just ignored it and went on with my life, but my gut instinct kept telling me something was off. My doctor worked with me and looked further into my concerns,” Chef German Lam recalls.
“There’s a possibility you have nose cancer,” his doctor explained.
Turns out, he was right. Lam ended up being diagnosed with nasopharyngeal carcinoma, a cancer that is located in the back of the nose and which strong evidence exists linking it to, in many cases, including his, the Epstein-Barr virus.
Lam explains that was at a point in his life where he had a lot to lose. At the time of his diagnosis, he had been married for 19 years, had two teenage boys and a flourishing career as a professional chef-turned-entrepreneur.
“In my professional life, I act as a teacher and mentor, insisting on clean habits in preparation and consistency in technique and method in the kitchen,” says Lam. “I attribute my strength to some key things—my religion, my family, my skilled doctors, my career as a chef and my freestyle lifestyle.
“The great martial artist and actor Bruce Lee said, ‘You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water, my friend’.”
Lam was born in the Chinese year of the dragon, and as he likes to note, “dragons are fierce and hard; they are the kings. But I can’t be a dragon all the time. Sometimes I have to be soft and flow like fluid. To know when to be which—hard like a dragon or soft and fluid like water—is the foundation to my own personal philosophy, which I call the ‘freestyle lifestyle.’
“For each treatment, I followed in Lee’s wise footsteps. For seven weeks, Monday through Friday, I drove to Massachusetts General Hospital for these radiation treatments. I also had seven chemotherapy sessions.”
However, the treatments were only half the battle for the chef. Because the tumor and treatments were for the head and neck, he lost his ability to taste and feel. A chef losing his sense of taste—you can imagine the distress!
But, fortunately, Lam could still smell.
Yet his throat was constantly dry and coated in a muddy mucus, a physical reminder of his diminishing state and, he admits, an agent of fear of relying on a feeding tube.
“I was bleeding from my nose all the time, and I had to keep it clean and hydrated with a spray,” recalls Lam. “It was very painful. Each day, cancer was taking away something new from me.
“Being a chef who couldn’t cook was ironic and disheartening. I was not able to eat for six weeks due to the treatments! I went from weighing 188 to 163 pounds. Losing the ability to eat was a huge blow to my confidence, but my freestyle lifestyle reminded me how to draw energy from other areas of my life and find other ways to maintain my strength.
“I cried and swore every day, but then I’d regroup again. The doctors didn’t tell me that I needed to go to the beach to feel the sand on my feet, but I knew that I had to do it for myself. During this journey, I realized the importance of listening to my inner gut instinct to identify what it takes to make me feel alive.
“Cancer is a gift, because it has allowed me to up my game and share my story and my methods. I’ve entered this world unexpectedly. I am accessing parts of myself I didn’t before.”
When Lam taught his sons to cook after he lost his sense of taste, he never imagined it would be to feed his family while he was sick. Instead of depending on him to nourish the family, they had to rely on the kindness of friends and family who brought over meals, which he says they are forever grateful for.
“The diagnosis opened up a new world, one in which I am set to demonstrate my full potential as a dragon. I focused on destroying cancer through the foundation of values I was raised with, as well as the foundation I have built. I focused on destroying cancer using the freestyle lifestyle, which emphasizes discipline, skill and creativity. Freestyle helped strengthen my body, mind, and spirit, so that if I ever found myself in a similar position, I can be better than prepared to meet my enemy.
“When the nurses at my treatments asked if I was suicidal, week after week, I said, ‘hell no.’ I wasn’t! But I will admit that I wish someone had prepared me for what was to come. I didn’t know how painful this journey would be, and I want to share my story so that others are prepared.
“I was told on October 3, 2017 that I was cancer-free. By sharing my story, I want to create a movement of knowledge and prevention. I want to create awareness about cancers that are caused by viruses that are not often screened for. I want to illuminate the challenges and gaps in the healthcare system.
“Cancer patients, we’re all in the same family now. And when you are going through this, you need a lot of support. One way to do that is to share our stories. This is a way to heal and gain strength. This is a new community that has nurtured me.”
German’s book, Dragon Turns to Water Chef German Lam Fights Cancer with a Freestyle Lifestyle, is available for Kindle on Amazon.
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- The National Foundation for Cancer Research, co-creator of Faces & Voices of Cancer, thanks Mr. Lam for his Spring 2018 interview
- Lam, German, Liz Tracy, Dragon Turns to Water Chef German Lam Fights Cancer with a Freestyle Lifestyle. 2018. Kindle Edition.