Doctors removed his lung, but cancer was in his blood

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 March, 2012, 12:00am


When Rocky Perez went into the operating theatre to have his left lung and the tumour it contained removed in June last year, he was hoping to walk out healthy.

Instead, after two weeks in intensive care, he discovered he had not needed such drastic surgery, as the cancer was not in his lung but in his blood.

He is not only weaker but faces a higher risk of lung complications from chemotherapy and the bone marrow transplant for which he is waiting.

Although most lymphoma patients find tumours in the lymph nodes in their necks, armpits or groin, it is not uncommon for the condition to invade organs, according to Dr Kwong Yok-lam, chair professor of haematology, oncology and bone marrow transplantation at the University of Hong Kong.

Perez consulted doctors, complaining of chest pains and a lingering cough. A 17cm tumour was found between his lungs. Two private doctors - a lung surgeon and a cardiothoracic specialist - thought he had lung cancer and advised him to have the affected lung removed urgently.

Two days later, he underwent the surgery, during which some parts of his vocal cords were also removed. He can now only speak in whispers.

His wife, Debra Jones, a music teacher, said they should have waited for more laboratory tests before going ahead with the surgery, but at the time they were left with no choice.

'We felt like we had already had two opinions,' she said. 'And when somebody tells you there's a 17cm tumour in your chest, your first reaction will be 'get it out'.'

Kwong, who is treating Perez at Queen Mary Hospital, said in lymphoma cases it was rare for doctors to remove the organ containing the tumour.

'It's useless to remove the organ,' he said. 'Lymphoma can't be cured even if the organ is removed. The patient still needs chemotherapy.'

Perez, a bass player in a band, is now waiting for a suitable bone marrow donor. The Discovery Bay couple, who have three children, are struggling to gather the HK$200,000 to HK$300,000 needed for the transplant while coping with the increased living expenses after Perez got sick.

A bone marrow transplant offers a 40 per cent chance of clearing the cancer, but without it, Perez will only have a 5 per cent chance of surviving the next two years.

There are 1,000 lymphoma sufferers in Hong Kong, which makes it the sixth most common cancer. Doctors have observed an increasing number of cases, especially among young people.