Cancer sufferer stages own funeral

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 July, 2012, 12:00am

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It had all the trappings of a traditional funeral, complete with prayers, music and mourners - but with one exception. The 'deceased' was able to get up and walk away.

The International Funeral Parlour in Hung Hom is normally a place for tears and farewells.

But for William Chan Wai-lam, who has suffered from an extremely rare form of skin cancer since birth, a service there was an opportunity to mark his 30th birthday and the launch of his autobiography My Will.

Chan, who prefers to go by the name William Outcast, was born with a rare form of malignant melanoma, a type of skin cancer, that has peppered his face and body with painful dark moles.

He was told as a youngster that his days were numbered, but has surprised doctors by surviving to the age of 30. The freelance filmmaker has refused chemotherapy and any medical treatment, deeming all of it 'useless'. He says his health is not deteriorating and he has no clue how long he has to live. But he decided his 30th birthday was the right time to hold his 'living funeral'.

Chan was the only person to speak at the ceremony. He said before the ceremony, attended by more than 100 relatives and friends: 'It's my lifelong dream to spread the message: no one is an outcast. This is the purpose of the living funeral.'

The cancer has left protruding moles sprouting on Chan's gums, tongue and throat.

'The pain from the moles is a feeling I've learned to live with,' he said. 'It feels a bit like the discomfort you get from walking on pebbles.'

His family gave him full support for the funeral. And the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals - a charitable organisation with which Chan has volunteered for eight years - waived the rent for the hall that it owns and donated HK$14,000 to him to cover his expenses. Tung Wah says this is the first time it has offered a funeral to a living person - and it does not plan to offer such a service routinely.

Chan was carried into the funeral hall on a wooden couch made from coffin wood. Initially, he had wanted to be carried into the hall in a coffin, but his family felt uncomfortable.

A portrait of a smiling Chan stood in the centre, with the Chinese characters for 'Leaving with Style' emblazoned above. Cupcakes featuring Chan's face were given to guests.

Chan shared anecdotes from his life, including how he has been the target of taunts, such as being called a 'dalmatian'. He also told of the time he was refused entry to a taxi because the driver said he might have trouble picking up the moles falling off his body.

'Hongkongers are pretty creative with their insults,' he reflected.

The topic of death is typically regarded as taboo in Chinese culture, especially by elderly people.

But Chan said: 'We can choose a lot of things in life. You can choose to marry or not.

'But you will certainly die. If only we can view death rationally, as simply the final destination of life.'

He said leaving a clearly written will behind can relieve stress for loved ones. 'Write a will and write it fully - not just a sentence,' Chan said.

According to the World Health Organisation, around 132,000 melanoma skin cancers occur globally each year - there are two to three million cases of non-melanoma skin cancer annually. But melanoma is far more deadly than other forms of skin cancer and accounts for 75 per cent of skin cancer deaths.

Melanoma usually develops later in life, often as a result of exposure to sun, with cases like Chan's extremely rare. Dr Jonathan Sham Shun-tong, a professor of clinical oncology at the University of Hong Kong, said melanoma occurring at birth is due to genetics. 'If diagnosed early, the malignant mole must be removed for a full recovery,' he said. 'If diagnosed late and the cancer is out of control, the chances of survival are slim.'

But rather than portraying himself as a victim ravaged by disease, Chan says: 'I entered the world with skin cancer, and will leave with it. The skin cancer and I live as one.'

Joint Publishing has printed 3,000 copies of his book, which launched at the Book Fair that kicked off on Wednesday. The book is the company's fourth-biggest seller at the fair.