With stage 4 cancer, S'porean lawyer Peter Low was given 'months' to live. He's now 3 years in remission.

Almost Famous: Peter Low, one of Singapore's pioneer human rights lawyers, opens up for the first time about his journey with prostate cancer — which he's been in remission from for more than three years now.

Jeanette Tan | December 31, 2020, 12:45 PM

Singaporean veteran lawyer Peter Low is a very busy man.

Right up till Christmas Eve, the 69-year-old was fully occupied with a court trial, and is currently in the thick of the Parti Liyani disciplinary tribunal convened to investigate her complaints about the handling of her case by two state prosecutors.

Despite his busyness, though, Low will look on the end of this year with a bittersweet gratefulness — as the world continues to grapple with an unprecedented pandemic, he will have marked three and a half years in remission from prostate cancer.

It's the same cancer Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was diagnosed with in February 2015 — the second of two rounds of cancer he has survived now — but for Low, as with anyone who is first diagnosed with Singapore's number one killer, things didn't sound anywhere near as optimistic.

He sits down with Mothership to share his intense eight-month journey battling, and so far defying, his originally terminal illness.

Out of nowhere, a routine insurance health screening triggers an alarming finding

Low's story begins back in November 2016, when a new medical insurance policy he wanted to sign up for required that he undergo a round of health screening.

Low at his promotion ceremony to Major rank, congratulated by then-Chief of Defence Force General Winston Choo. (Photo courtesy of Peter Low)

He had no reason to suspect anything could possibly be amiss — even in his 60s, Low was far fitter than an average sedentary office worker: boasting an athlete's heart rate (of less than 50 beats per minute on average), he would go on frequent half-hour runs, and spent more than two decades in voluntary active National Service too.

All this while juggling managing his own law firm, Peter Low & Choo LLC, as well as his own personal case load — not to mention his extracurriculars like his volunteer work with human rights advocacy group MARUAH, speaking engagements and more.

Despite all this, Low found himself with a referral to a urologist with an alarming reading on an index he did not understand: his prostate-specific antigen (PSA) registered at 38.61, when normal levels should range between zero and four.

Do you wake up multiple times in the night to pee? You might have prostate cancer

As it turns out, something Low never thought was an issue turned out to be the sole indicator he would've been able to reference — waking up at night to pee.

It is, after all, a fairly inconsequential sounding thing to do, especially when you're a bit more advanced in age, and Low says multiple times during our chat that his kakis from his years serving in the army all do the same, but never saw it as a big deal, or anything to be concerned about.

"But this urologist said, because he interviewed me also, he said, among other things, do you wake up at night to go to the toilet? Apparently that is a symptom lah.

So I told him yeah, I think maybe two times, sometimes three times each night?

So this was no big deal to me lah. It’s of no significance to me because I have my army kakis that every now and then I see them, and to all of us old fogies this is no biggie, nothing one lah — we all wake up two or three times to go to the toilet at night."

But anyway, there it is. Too quickly, Low found himself being sent for an anal probe and a biopsy, after being told he had an incurable cancer, where he went under the knife to have two pieces of his prostate removed for further tests.

And the news coming from this would turn out to be far worse: Low's cancer was, unlike the typical scenario, a particularly aggressive one, and was also at stage four, having already spread to his spine.

"A lot of people who get prostate cancer live to a ripe old age — in fact, they die of reasons other than prostate cancer.

But the born loser that I was had this aggressive cancer, not the slower one."

Low may sound cavalier saying it now, but it certainly was far more sobering back then. So jarring was the news for him that he sought a second opinion from another urologist — this first one, he said, refused to give him an answer to the key question on most cancer patients' minds: how long they have left to live.

"Party's over, Peter"

These were the words of prominent local urologist Prof Christopher Cheng, who evaluated his biopsy results and other scans in February 2017.

Low recalls that he was with his wife, Maureen, and three daughters as they received the news from Prof Cheng together:

"He told me the truth. I asked him 'tell me ah, how long can I live?' And he was the one to say 'Party’s over, Peter. You know, five years if you’re lucky. Not so lucky, sorry ah… a few months.' And so Elaine was there, Christine was there, Adeline was there, mum was there. And they all cried."

And of course, he was overwhelmed — with his firm's operating costs setting him back a good six-figure sum every month, as well as two of his daughters preparing for their respective weddings in the coming year or two, all he had were questions.

"So indeed there was a worry about attrition — would all my lawyers run away from me, then how? Am I supposed to close down my firm? So that was one big worry.

The other was how about the weddings?

So there were two problems: the office; the marriages of my two daughters. Then, of course, my dear wife, I didn’t know how she will cope without me?

And there’s also myself — what will happen to me? Will I die within a few months like what Dr Cheng said?

And there’s the question of treatment — should I go for chemo? Or not?"

The answer to that last question was eventually yes

Low was in a dark place at this point — filled with stress and uncertainty, he sought out fellow prostate cancer sufferers to understand better their experience and to have a better idea of what to expect.

And his findings didn't encourage him much: one friend's father passed away within nine months of starting his chemotherapy, another was in the middle of a relapse when they first met, and ended up passing away about a year later.

But despite misgivings from some quarters close to him, Low eventually decided to take the chemotherapy route (after some wrangling with his insurance provider, who initially claimed his night wakings to pee proved his cancer was a pre-existing condition), and consulted with an oncologist who recommended six 21-day cycles of treatment that would commence in April 2017.

Chemotherapy and the 4 losses

Chemotherapy, for Low, can be summarised in amounting to four main losses as the drugs injected into his body helped him kill the cancerous cells:

  1. appetite,
  2. sleep,
  3. weight and
  4. hair.

He shared that his first two sessions of chemotherapy were more eventful than he would have liked — ordinarily, it is a one-and-a-half-hour session with the drugs administered through an intravenous drip, but in a small number of cases (his happening to be among them), adverse side effects can prove life-threatening if not immediately addressed.

Low with his second and third daughter, Elaine (left) and Christine (right), when they were having a toupee made for him. Photo courtesy of Peter Low

In Low's case, his first session saw two of his daughters observing that he was starting to look "off-colour". Low admits he did not realise what was happening to him — he would end up almost fainting from the strength of the drug — and needed to be taken off it for half an hour to rest halfway.

Despite that initial setback, Low said his first two cycles were only half bad — in each 21-day period between his chemo sessions, Low said he would experience body weakness, loss of appetite and insomnia in the first 10 days, and then feel "back to normal" in the 10 days that followed.

Going cycling alone, almost every day

Low with his bicycle at Coney Island, still stealing out to cycle even now. (Photo courtesy of Peter Low)

In fact, Low says he even felt well enough during these periods to venture out on lengthy solitary cycling trips to as far as Coney Island and back — partly to maintain his fitness and stamina, and partly, he confesses, simply because he sought peace of mind and alone time.

"I would cycle. Almost every day. And also because I wanted that peace of mind. I would cycle out at 4pm so there was nobody wherever I would end up. I would wear a hat to cover my naked head. I just wanted time alone."

Naked head? Yes, Low said the thinning of his hair started reasonably quickly too — his chemo started in April, and by May and June, he said all his hair had fallen off.

Christine and Elaine, his two younger practising lawyer-daughters who work at his firm with him, got a toupee made for him, but prior to that, Low admits that his hair loss was among the biggest things affecting his spirits, particularly as he felt his strength deteriorate following his third chemotherapy cycle.

Low, in his toupee, with Justice Chao Hick Tin, back in 2017. (Photo courtesy of Peter Low)

He confesses that he spent a good number of these weeks holed up at home, feeling too depressed about his gaunt, weakened appearance to meet anyone outside — but also passing his time writing contributing chapters to two books: The Art of Advocacy in Singapore and 1987: Singapore's Marxist Conspiracy 30 Years On.

Thankfully for Low, though, his cancer markers went down to normal levels by June 2017, after his third chemo round early that month. His oncologist put him on one final round, on June 23, and called off the last two planned cycles.

Turning to God

A picture of Low and his wife Maureen is flanked by various religious paraphernalia and statues, a signal of his dedication to staying close to his faith. Photo by Jeanette Tan

For Low, though, his cancer journey wasn't so much about any of the above as it was about reconnecting with his faith.

Especially when he knew his daughters and wife were in a vulnerable place in the wake of the news of his cancer:

"I couldn't cry lah. Cannot lah. Must remain strong. But it was tough lah, you know (to be told you've only got five years to live). At most. And then, at night, when I'm alone and when everybody's asleep, that's when it bothers me; the worry comes in. What's going to happen? What about my children's marriage, things like that. How to reorder my life."

He took this as a cue of sorts, resolving himself to renew and reinforce his relationship with God. He said he prayed a lot throughout those months ("I never said the Lord's Prayer and Hail Mary as many times a night as I did during that period"), and on the serendipitous advice of a stranger, attended a retreat run by Catholic Archbishop William Goh.

All these, as well as the support of his wife and daughters, Low says, helped him find peace with his circumstances — at first, with the prospect of a deadline foisted on him that he would be working toward, and later on, in seeking healing.

Additionally, Low's efforts in seeking out fellow prostate cancer sufferers led him to a Catholic cancer support group based at a parish in the East, which he continues to attend and participate in to this day.

This effort to draw closer to his faith has also manifested in Low's professional work — he now keeps his clients in prayer and can identify better with their struggles as well. Not that they'll be off the hook if they aren't supposed to be, he stresses, but that they will find peace with the outcome of the case, even if it isn't in their favour, and that justice will prevail.

He also feels he has become more compassionate toward clients of his who go through great difficulty, like those at the receiving end of abuse in divorce cases, or others facing jail sentences and the difficulties their families will face as a result.

Ultimately, Low knows he isn't necessarily out of the woods for the rest of his life — cancer can relapse at any point — and so he tries his best to do everything he does meaningfully with the extra time he's been given.

Like he has always been known to do, he still takes on pro-bono high profile cases avoided by most other lawyers — Parti Liyani's being a very current example — and plays a very active role in managing his firm. He also continues regular litigation, and takes on a good 80 per cent of his pre-cancer workload in case files at any one time.

Low on one of his solo cycling escapades, in Nov 2019. (Photo courtesy of Peter Low)

But here's one thing he does do differently now — stealing out of the office on Wednesday afternoons for solo bicycle rides to the Marina Bay area (sometimes further) and back, to ensure he still has time alone to clear his head, maintain a healthy lifestyle and also to take things a little bit easier.

Low at his second daughter Christine's wedding in July 2018. Photo courtesy of Peter Low

And in case you're wondering: yes, he did eventually walk both his two younger daughters down the aisle for their respective weddings in 2018. :)

Top photos by Jeanette Tan, courtesy of Peter Low