‘It’s hard to explain cancer to a child’: Hong Kong father whose tumours have spread on his ‘last-ditch’ treatment and staying strong for his family

‘It’s hard to explain cancer to a child’: Hong Kong father whose tumours have spread on his ‘last-ditch’ treatment and staying strong for his family
  • In 2019 Massimo Gavina learned he had stage 4 cancer. ‘I don’t want to die before I see my child getting a bit older. I still want to do things,’ he says
  • Minimally invasive surgery, crowdfunded after the restaurant exec exhausted his savings on treatment in Hong Kong as the tumours spread, offers a last hope

In November 2019, Massimo Gavina woke up in the Discovery Bay, Hong Kong, home he shares with his wife and son and turned on the TV to catch the news. Oddly, he was seeing double in his right eye.

The food and drink professional and restaurant consultant wasn’t too concerned, but saw his doctor when his vision was still blurred the next day. He might have had a stroke, or perhaps it was a burst blood vessel or even a sign of a brain tumour, the doctor said.

A battery of tests and scans over several weeks found nothing. Still, he could barely see out of his right eye.

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Then he was called in to learn the results of a blood test.

“The doctor told me my tumour markers were very high. It meant there was cancer activity somewhere in my body, but they didn’t know where. He told me to get a PET scan immediately and to go private because it would take too long in the public system,” said Gavina.

At the Hong Kong Integrated Oncology Centre in Central, he was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer which had spread beyond his digestive tract. Survival time if treated was, on average, two to three years, he was told. Untreated, it was just six months.

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As Gavina left the oncologist’s office, his thoughts were focused on his family and how he would keep physically and mentally active to beat the cancer. Then he realised the vision in his right eye was completely restored.

“I couldn’t understand it. I went to a Chinese doctor who told me, ‘Your body has been trying to send you signs for years, but you didn’t care, so the only thing left was the eye’,” says Gavina.

He concedes that he had been ignoring warning signs, chiefly constipation.

Ever since he had arrived in Hong Kong in 2005 for the opening of the Italian restaurant Goccia, he had been working at full steam. Many people in Hong Kong will know Gavina from fronting some of Hong Kong’s most buzzy restaurants, including DiVino on Wyndham Street, Cucina at the Marco Polo Hotel and The Pawn in Wan Chai.

Few are aware that he did his first degree in art and filmography at the University of Bologna in Italy. Upon graduating, he moved to New York, keen to get into the film industry. Like many wannabe actors, though, his dream was quashed as his funds ran dry.

He got into the food and beverage industry, starting at an after-hours club in New York’s trendy SoHo district and then working his way up the ranks from waiter to maItre D at the swish Italian eatery BiCE.

On September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York changed everything.

“I was walking my dog when the plane hit the second tower. I was shocked, paralysed, petrified. The smell was horrible – a mix of stainless steel and bodies for weeks. It was terrible, I kept crying. I never thought something like that would happen in New York,” Gavina says.

He took a break in Hawaii, where he accepted a job offer in Bali, Indonesia, as assistant food and beverage director at a restaurant in Ubud. It was his first time in Asia, and he loved Bali. But in October 2002, terrorist suicide bombs in a pub and outside a popular nightclub across the road in Kuta, Bali, left 202 people dead; and 20 more were killed in another terrorist attack in 2005.

“They [bombings] were following me, they were chasing me,” he says.

He came to Hong Kong in 2005 as operations manager for the popular Italian restaurants Goccia and DiVino Wine Bar & Restaurant on Wyndham Street in Central. Five years later, he met Kwun Wai Mei and they married in 2013. Two years on, their son, Adrian Blake, was born.

Sitting across the table from me at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Gavina puts his head in his hands and stifles a sob as he speaks about his son.

“This cancer journey has been an eye-opener,” he says. “I realise how much I need to spend time with my kid. I would have preferred to spend more time with him before. Now we talk a lot, I hug him, take him to school. It’s very hard to explain cancer to a child.”

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In the three years since his diagnosis, Gavina has done three courses of chemotherapy and targeted therapies, each made up of eight to 10 cycles.

“It was exhausting, but I kept doing exercises, kept walking and kept my brain trained by doing an online MBA,” the 64-year-old says.

The first treatment course was positive, and the colon tumour shrank. But the cancer has since spread to the area next to his liver, and to his right lung.

He had been moving between health insurers, from AIA to a new company, when the cancer was diagnosed. As a pre-existing condition, it isn’t covered. Treatment costs so far have exceeded HK$2.8 million (US$360,000), taking up most of his savings.

I’m on the edge of a cliff Anything can happen at any time, but I am trying to stay focused and strong
Massimo Gavina

Two months ago, doctors at the Prince of Wales Hospital said they could do nothing more for him. Gavina is now pinning his hopes on minimally invasive robotic-assisted surgery with the da Vinci Surgical System, though not in Hong Kong.

He has an appointment on March 14 at a practice in Bologna, Italy, that offers the treatment, to see whether he is a suitable candidate.

What he hasn’t told the surgeon yet – because he doesn’t want to appear to be taking advantage or asking a favour – is that he knows him.

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“He lived near me when I was a kid and we used to play basketball on the court in the church. It’s a strange coincidence – it’s a sign of fate,” says Gavina.

In late February, with his savings almost wiped out, Gavina launched a crowdfunding campaign – gogetfunding.com/massimogavina/ – to raise money for this last-ditch treatment.

Friends and former colleagues from the United States, Bali and Hong Kong have responded, moving him with their support and encouraging messages.

A dishwasher who worked in a restaurant he managed sent him HK$200, which touched him and made him cry.

“I’ve found out through this [campaign] that people always liked me, and I didn’t know they liked me so much,” he says.

“I don’t want to give up. I don’t want to die before I see my child getting a bit older. I still want to do things.”

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Gavina will update followers of his crowdfunding campaign on his treatment and progress from Italy.

He looks forward to meeting the surgeon who was his neighbour when they were young boys, unaware of the many adventures – and trials – that lay ahead.

“I’m on the edge of a cliff,” Gavina says. “Anything can happen at any time, but I am trying to stay focused and strong.”

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

Copyright (c) 2023. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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