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The past year has been a very difficult one for Timothy Lai, a New York City public school teacher. His wife Esther, who fought terminal breast cancer for eight years, passed away exactly a week before Christmas. While deeply mourning his wife, Timothy struggled with how to cope with the loss himself and help his teenage Leif endure this trying life experience.

Leif was only five years old when Esther was first diagnosed. From the start he was at the epicenter of her long and arduous struggle with cancer.


“She received uninterrupted, awful chemo treatments every Friday for years — still fighting painfully against this dreadful disease so we could see our son grow up together,” Timothy said. “My wife was one of the bravest and most determined women.”

Now, Leif remains the driving force behind everything Timothy does. “He is only 13 years old, and he will never ever see his beloved mom again,” said Timothy. “My son is the reason for me to live on now so he can still continue to get support even though mommy was gone.”

Despite receiving an outpouring of support from family, friends and colleagues, Timothy grappled with how to carry on as a single parent. He sought out family counseling, worked with a social worker and found comfort from an unexpected source — at a cancer center almost 500 miles away.

One of Esther’s medical oncologists recommended the UNC Lineberger Single Fathers Due to Cancer Program, which is dedicated to helping the thousands of fathers who each year lose their spouses to cancer and must adjust to being sole parents. All the way from New York, Timothy was able to find helpful resources through the program’s website ( to complement the care he and Leif were receiving at home.

“All of the support really helped my son cope with this horrible disease that took away my wife,” he said. Timothy was inspired by the Single Fathers Program to make a gift to UNC Lineberger in honor of his school’s principal, who always stood by him throughout his wife’s cancer journey.

Timothy explains, “I share with other victims of cancer patients and feel like I need to do something to make sure other people are aware of how to get support through the program.”

In making a gift, Timothy was able to gain a little bit of closure and he plans to continue to give back to help others.

“A lot of people may stay away from this terrible disease, but there is no need for patients and their families to suffer like they do,” he said. “I want to let people know what to expect out of it and share my coping experience of single fatherhood.”