Sparking a Passion for Change
Serena Ho is the first to admit she knew little about liver disease, despite her maternal grandmother’s battle with liver cancer. It wasn’t until her dad, a Toronto-based Dentist, Dr. Stephen Ho, was diagnosed with advanced hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) that the family began buffing up their knowledge of liver cancer, liver disease and the Canadian Liver Foundation (CLF).
Shortly after returning from a 2017 cruise in South Africa, Serena’s father began experiencing uncontrollable hiccups for two days.
“I saw him on Christmas Eve, and we joked about how bizarre it was,” says Serena. “That was the first time I remember noticing he had gotten really skinny. I mean, he just came back from a cruise, where you’re supposed to gain weight! He looked up home remedies online to get rid of the hiccups and didn’t think much of it.”
Two days into the New Year, Stephen began vomiting throughout the night. The family took him to the emergency room where he underwent extensive testing. Due to his elevated liver enzymes, Stephen and his family would receive devastating and life-altering news that he had HCC.
The next couple of weeks were a hectic and frustrating mixture of specialist appointments, more testing, lots of questions with minimal answers. The uncertainty of what was to come next occupied the minds of the family.
“When we took him home his appetite disappeared, and he was quite weak,” recalls Serena. “We were so happy to have him home, but it was only a couple of days until he developed pancreatitis again.”
Back and forth the Ho family went over the next few weeks taking Stephen in and out of the hospital. After Stephen came home from his second development of pancreatitis, he continued to develop a series of complications, including an infection where he was required to take antibiotics and had a stent installed to drain the excess bile his liver was producing. After some initial promising results, worked Stephen began suffering from dehydration and internal bleeding that required an emergency blood transfusion.
“My dad was extremely strong and an incredible fighter—the doctors were extremely impressed as to how he overcame every single complication in record time,” recalls Serena. “However, after all the complications and no clear treatment plan, we were unsure of what this meant for my dad’s condition. We started to feel completely alone.”
Finally, the family was alerted that Stephen could be a good candidate for a radiation treatment that was available in London, Ontario. After doing all their own research, they drove to London for an initial consultation, and a date was set for Stephen to undergo the treatment. He went back to London to perform his mapping for the radiation, and the treatment was ordered.
“I remember the car ride home from London— my dad seemed like ‘himself’ again for the first time since his diagnosis,” says Serena. “We were finally talking about normal things, and he was really positive. It was a very special moment I’ll never forget.”
Sadly, a couple of days after, Stephen would suffer another series of complications and setbacks that would land him in the ICU for a months’ time. The complications he developed and the intensive care he required were enough to cancel the treatment date. Stephen knew after this set back that the chances of him getting any better would be slim. He decided he wanted to move to palliative care and be as comfortable as possible.
“He really didn’t like the hospital,” says Serena. “When we got him a private room in palliative care, we decorated the room with pictures, lamps, flowers, and a TV to make it feel more like home.”
Stephen would pass away peacefully that night.
Throughout the whole process of her dad’s medical journey, Serena could not help but feel emotionally exhausted, frustrated and utterly alone. Searching for inspiration, she stumbled upon the Facebook profile of a co-worker whose dad had a similar experience with cancer. This coworker, who too lost her father at a young age, gave back by raising funds and participating in charity walks.
“That was a turning point for me,” says Serena. “It’s odd, but sometimes you need to see that people who went through a similar experience are doing okay and life can go on without this painful feeling.”
Remembering a website she found when researching her father’s condition, Serena explored liver charity walks and stumbled upon the CLF’s Stroll for Liver in Toronto. In less than two months, Serena pulled together a team of 30 close family members and friends. Together, the team fundraised close to $3,000 for liver research and education, topping the leaderboard.
“The whole time I knew my dad would be so proud of me,” said Serena. “It was a great way to honour his legacy.”
Serena and her family’s education with liver disease did not stop with the loss of her father. Equipped with the CLF website, the whole family has taken it upon themselves to ensure they ask for liver tests proactively, keep up with their vaccinations for hepatitis A & B, get tested for hepatitis C, and stay informed about how to live a liver-healthy life through diet and exercise.
Serena’s newfound information on liver health has ignited a passion for seeing a change in how our healthcare system screens for liver disease during regular checkups.
“My dad got hepatitis B from a patient many years ago, but we were never informed about getting liver tests or screening,” says Serena.
Serena’s greatest wish is for all Canadians to be educated on the symptoms of liver disease and help play their part in advocating for equal access to liver testing and treatment across the country.
“It’s very frustrating to think that knowing what we know now could’ve maybe made a difference in my dad’s life,” says Serena. “We shouldn’t have to inquire about being tested or treated. People should never have to go through what we went through. It’s time to make a change, and I hope it’s made very soon”.
If you are inspired by the Ho family’s story and would like to help the CLF continue championing liver health in Canada, visit our advocacy page. Together, we can use our voices to shape the lives of the 1 in 4 Canadians who may be affected by liver disease!