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【Shanghai Daily】Inspiring 'Crippled Horse' makes no lame excuses

May 11, 2012      Author: Liang Yiwen

"CRIPPLED Horse" (Que Ma) is the public name chosen by a 36-year-old brain cancer patient who defied prognosis of imminent death, earned a PhD degree and now does tumor-related biomedical research at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

He chooses to remain anonymous because of widespread discrimination against cancer patients, due to the deep-seated belief in China (and other East Asian and Southeast Asian countries) that proximity to death and dying brings bad luck, even death.

Ma's cancer is terminal. When he first diagnosed, doctors predicted that he only had a few months to live. Yet he has survived for nearly seven years.

If they knew he had cancer, Ma said, landlords would not rent to him, employers would not hire him, neighbors and friends would shun him and his family. He has a nine-year-old son who does not know his condition and Ma doesn't want the boy to suffer discrimination or to be pitied. School teachers also do not know.

Ma's vision, mobility and other functions are impaired by the cancer, hence, the given name "Crippled." His surname is Ma, "horse."

Ma recently received his PhD in technical science. He spoke to students at Jiao Tong University about his seven-year-long battle with cancer and his philosophy of life. He also spoke to Shanghai Daily.

He tries to maintain a peaceful mind, savor time with his family and treat each day as if it were his last. He records his daily life on a weibo microblog under the name "Crippled Ma" and he recently published a book titled "Dancer On the Sword's Edge" about his struggles with disease. Before publication of his writings, few people on campus knew of his condition. "Society has many misunderstandings about cancer," Ma said. "It's a chronic disease instead of an incurable disease ... If I told my landlord about it, he would probably stop leasing me his house."

"He would worry about my dying in his house," said Ma. That would be ominous, bringing bad luck and even death to the landlord and his family, as believed by many people.

"His life didn't become gloomy after he got the disease," university president Zhang Jie wrote in the preface to the book. "His persistent pursuit of dreams makes his life rich and colorful."

Sunk in the abyss

Ma, a Shandong Province native, was diagnosed with brain tumor in 2005, shortly before his 30th birthday. Since then he has undergone five Gamma Knife radio surgeries, more than 20 sessions of radiotherapy and more than 10 rounds of chemotherapy.

"My life dropped from above the clouds to the abyss after I got the disease," he said.

Since he grew up in a rural mountain village in Zibo City, Ma was considered a success story: academic excellence leading to postgraduate studies in Shanghai, a wife and child, an apartment in Shanghai and a bright future. He was in the clouds.

After graduating from Shanghai Normal University, he worked as a research assistant in nano medicine at Jiao Tong University; his wife worked at another research institute. He compared himself to a girl marrying into a rich family, afraid of saying or doing something wrong at the prestigious university with so many PhDs and returned overseas Chinese scholars.

Since being diagnosed with cancer, the cost of treatment has been enormous. The family spent their savings, sold their house and moved into a rental apartment close to the university.

His father and father-in-law, both care givers, died in 2008, one from disease, one in a traffic accident.

"I felt hopeless, frustrated and at a loss at that time," Ma said.

But after a short period of gloom, he started to realize that life is a journey to death. "The meaning of life doesn't lie in the length of the journey," he wrote in his book. "It's important to treasure each day and make every day count in our life."

"I love and cherish life more since I got the disease," he said. "I treat every day as my last day of life."

Before the diagnosis he felt under great pressure from high expectations and competition with many PhD students and colleagues. He fretted over his low pay and the low monetary rewards of medical research. Earning only 50,000 yuan (US$7,930) a year, he was also under a lot of pressure to pay the mortgage and feed a new baby.

"I lacked passion for research, which became just a way to make a living," he wrote.

But coping with disease helped him understand what's important in life. He stopped comparing himself with others and caring about income and titles.

He also devoted himself to his research, which helped him regain confidence and rise above the gloom.

Ma has published 15 scientific papers and led a nationally funded research program in gene trans infection based on nano materials (1 nanometer is 1 billionth of a meter).

After two failed attempts to get into a PhD program, he finally succeeded, entered a PhD program in 2007 and graduated last month - then he gave his talk.

Relatives and friends urged him to give up trying for a PhD, saying such hard work would cost him his life.

"Everyone needs to do something significant to make his life richer, which will make people happier," he said. "It (doing something meaningful) will help tumor patients overcome the gloom and recover better."

"I cannot change what already is," "Crippled Horse" wrote, "but I can change my perspective and attitude."

Source: Shanghai Daily