Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
David Haigh, Shirley Adrain, their daughter Saffron and son Austin in Jardine’s Lookout, Hong Kong. Adrain hesitated to tell her children and husband about her lung cancer diagnosis. Haigh lost both his parents to the disease. Photo: Edmond So

Lung cancer survivor credits keto diet, meditation, strength training, targeted therapy, and plenty of positivity for recovery

  • Despite never smoking, Shirley Adrain was diagnosed with lung cancer, and it spread to her liver, bones, thyroid and adrenal glands, neck, and chest
  • A genetic mutation meant she responded well to targeted therapy and this, along with some lifestyle changes, put her on the road to recovery and self-discovery
Angela Baura


When Shirley Adrain became a mother in her 40s, she adopted a healthier lifestyle. Aspiring to live to 100, she exercised at least five times a week, consumed a sugar-free, low-carb diet, and only occasionally drank wine.

Recognised for her people development skills, she left her 20-year career in banking and founded a leadership coaching and diversity and inclusion consultancy, enabling her to have a better work-life balance. But, in August, 2020, a doctor’s devastating diagnosis threatened to derail Adrain’s best-laid plans.

Thinking little of it at the time, she consulted with her doctor about a sore throat and pain between her ribs. Five days later, after many tests, Adrain, 51, was shocked to learn she had stage IV lung cancer – non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), or adenocarcinoma, the most common type of the disease.

Lung cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer and the leading cause of cancer death in Hong Kong, according to the city’s Department of Health, and worldwide, as shown by Globocan 2020 data from the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Meditation has been a big help to Adrain. Photo: Edmond So

Smoking is the biggest risk factor for lung cancer. Having never smoked, it hadn’t crossed Adrain’s mind that she could be at risk.

Globocan research shows that “never smokers” – people who have smoked fewer than 100 cigarettes in their lives – account for 15 to 20 per cent of male lung cancer patients and more than 50 per cent of women with lung cancer.

A non-smoker who battled lung cancer urges smokers to quit

In Asia, the latter figure is even higher: 60 to 80 per cent of female lung cancer patients are never-smokers, according to a study published in Nature Reviews Cancer in 2017.

Risk factors include genetic susceptibility, hormonal issues, increased exposure to second-hand smoke, cooking fumes, and occupational and environmental toxins.

 Adrain believes it was the stress of home-learning support, buying a new home in Scotland, and running two companies during the coronavirus pandemic that compromised her immunity and led to her diagnosis – a theory backed by 2019 research in the journal Clinical Medical Insights: Oncology which suggests a link between stressful life events and lung cancer development.

The worst part was telling my parents and sisters in the UK. It’s been tough not being able to be with them because of the pandemic, and I know they won’t relax until they’ve seen me
Shirley Adrain, lung cancer survivor

By the time Adrain was diagnosed, the aggressive cancer had been in her system for around four months and had spread to her liver, bones, thyroid and adrenal glands, neck, and chest.

Dr Stanley Yu, a Hong Kong-based specialist in clinical oncology, says lung cancer typically doesn’t cause symptoms in its earliest stages, which is why the disease is often only diagnosed at an advanced stage.

By that stage symptoms may include a persistent cough, coughing up blood, hoarseness, shortness of breath, chest pain, back pain, and unexplained weight loss, Yu says. “If you’re experiencing symptoms, it’s important to seek medical advice,” he says.

 Adrain says it was difficult to share the diagnosis with her family.

 “The worst part was telling my parents and sisters in the UK. It’s been tough not being able to be with them because of the pandemic,” she says, “and I know they won’t relax until they’ve seen me.”
Dr Stanley Yu is a Hong Kong-based specialist in clinical oncology. Photo: Courtesy of Dr Stanley Yu

She worried about how to tell her 12-year-old daughter, Saffron, and six-year-old son, Austin; her oncologist advised her not to use the “C word” for a while.

“My husband, David, has been a fantastic support, but I felt so bad, as he is an only child who lost both his parents to cancer when he was quite young,” Adrain adds.

Determined to do everything possible to live for her family, Adrain knew she had to act fast. The first sliver of hope came when she learned that she has a genetic mutation that responds well to targeted therapy.

How a partner’s love and devotion can help you beat cancer

She is now getting a treatment that has been shown to stop this type of mutation – a third-generation epidermal growth factor receptor tyrosine kinase inhibitor (EGFR-TKI).

“While the chance of curing cancer completely at the stage IV level is slim, studies show that this treatment leads to significantly longer progression-free survival and fewer side effects compared with other forms of treatment,” Yu says. “Given the investment, trials and studies to find a longer-term solution, we should hopefully see fourth-generation targeted therapy for adenocarcinoma soon.”

After two weeks of this therapy, which required her to take a single pill each day, Adrain’s cancer markers had fallen from extremely high to normal. Now she has only one small tumour in her liver and two small ones in her lungs.

She has had intensive radiotherapy for two of them and is hoping to be cancer-free in a few months.

Adrain prepares a quick and healthy meal. Photo: Edmond So

Her treatment is expected to work for one or two years before the cancer begins to mutate and progress. But, as a former chief operating officer for a global investment bank, Adrain is well versed in putting contingency plans in place.

Supportive friends introduced Adrain to a clinical researcher in Australia who had already scoured the world to find the best practitioners and treatments to help her husband with stage IV colon cancer. This alone saved months of time, Adrain says.

With husband David, she read through research papers and medical claims, consulted the recommended integrative oncologists, naturopaths and dietitians, and quickly implemented a holistic strategy. This includes taking supplements, and following an immunity-boosting keto diet that is believed to limit tumour cells’ access to key nutrients while nourishing healthy cells, reduce inflammation and improve quality of life.

I now have an amazing life coach who has helped me to understand my life purpose and continually strive to be the best expression of myself
Shirley Adrain

She eats whole foods, mostly plant-based, plus some organic salmon and chicken, but has no carbohydrates and only rarely has a glass of wine.

“Because of the pandemic, there are doctors around the world now set up to consult virtually, which has been incredible. I’m blessed to be living in Hong Kong where we have access to amazing medical treatment, and I know I’m really lucky to have private health care,” Adrain says.

“If I was living in a country with restricted access to health care at this time, or a third-world country with no access to such health care, I wouldn’t be here today.”

Adrain does daily at-home weight training exercises, and has monthly injections and supplements to protect her bones, which have small holes from where the cancer has been.

Meditation: a Silicon Valley executive’s secret to success

She embraces self-care through twice-weekly acupuncture; infrared saunas and breathing exercises help her to stay positive. During 10-minute meditation exercises morning and night she counts her blessings and sets positive intentions for the day ahead.

She also listens to guided meditations to help her nap, and plans to go on a four-day meditation and yoga retreat to help her focus on beating her cancer.

“Just two weeks before my diagnosis, I had done a radio interview on how your best career and life are ahead of you. I took some time to reflect on that and determine how it could apply to me in this circumstance. I had been hugely stressed this past year, and I realised I needed to re-evaluate my life and purpose,” Adrain says.


“I now have an amazing life coach who has helped me to understand my life purpose and continually strive to be the best expression of myself – more calm, wise and supportive, appreciating others and their unique talents, and teaching my children good values to live their lives.”


‘Don’t hide fear’: how cancer survivor beat illness – twice

She refuses to allow cancer to define her or prevent her from living life on her own terms.


“I’m embracing the uncertainty that comes with having cancer and I know that so many new medical developments are around the corner. I’m determined to come out of this a better person,” she explains.


“Getting cancer has been the greatest lesson in my life – not the greatest adversity. I’m continually asking myself ‘What can I learn from this? Where can I find the lesson and grow? How can I be the best version of myself?’”