Physical Therapist to Shaun White Pushes Through Stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer: 'I Have a Bonus Life'
Esther Lee/Instagram Esther Lee
Esther Lee feels as though she's living a "bonus life." The beloved physical therapist to elite athletes like snowboarder Shaun White and Serena and Venus Williams was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer — meaning it's terminal, with the average life expectancy of one year — in July 2020, yet nearly two years later, she's feeling stronger than she has in months.
Lee, 44, was a physical therapist at a private practice in Los Angeles in 2009 when she first worked on Serena, she told Sports Illustrated's Brandon Sneed. Serena told the outlet that she "immediately fell in love" with Lee and "literally asked her on the spot" to work with her and Venus full-time. Lee toured with them for six years before deciding she wanted to put down roots in Los Angeles, where she was introduced to White.
"She became just this dear, dear friend," White told SI. "She had this great outlook on everything. She was the one I'd go to for advice on career, relationships, you name it — anything."
RELATED: Shaun White's Physical Therapist Says Secret to His Success Is More than Just Pushing It in the Gym
So when Lee called White, telling him that she had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, they both broke down crying.
"'What's next?' " White said he asked Lee. "Is there hope? Can I dare to hope?"
As Lee told PEOPLE last year, White has "been there for me to listen, and to really encourage me and to cry with me about the heaviness."
But when Lee was first diagnosed, she wasn't sure if there was hope — she had a cantaloupe-sized tumor in her chest and lesions on her lymph nodes, liver and along her spine. Just 1% of patients survive past five years, with the average patient living for one, and Lee's tumor was five times the average patient's size — though it turned out to be neuro-endocrine, meaning it was slightly less aggressive and slower to spread.
RELATED: What to Know About Alex Trebek's Incurable, Stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer
Doctors removed Lee's tumor and spleen and found complications in her lungs that delayed the start of radiation. She was in extreme pain, couldn't sleep or eat and needed a morphine drip at the hospital and heavy opioids once at home. Once she could start chemotherapy in Nov. 2020, Lee could barely eat, and lost more than 25 lbs. in a month, worrying doctors. Lee felt extremely weak — she had to give her dog to her sister because she didn't have the energy to walk him, and certainly couldn't perform physical therapy. Losing that part of her identity was psychologically grueling.
"I was just trying to get through the day," she told SI. "Get through the pain. And I just felt useless."
After her first round of chemotherapy, the cancer was still present, and Lee cried, realizing that she likely would never work as a physical therapist again. But she also leaned on friends, family and her church chaplain as she learned to deal with her emotions. In Jan. 2021, she joined a Zoom webinar with pancreatic cancer survivors who had lived for decades, which she says was "so encouraging."
Speaking to PEOPLE, Lee said that through this process, "the biggest thing that really stuck out is the amount of love and support I got immediately from family and friends, and every single one of my clients."
RELATED VIDEO: Jeopardy! Champ James Holzhauer Donates Portion of Winnings to Cancer Walk in Alex Trebek's Name
Lee started on a newly-approved radiation treatment, which was still extremely difficult. But when Venus reached out to her about coming to visit to see how she was doing in Feb. 2021, Lee proposed working on her ankle, which the tennis star had just hurt at the Australian Open.
"I did push myself a little too much," she said to SI of working on Venus, who left the meeting without the ankle limp she walked in with. "My hands were so swollen and sore. But it made me so happy, just to feel useful again."
Lee excitedly told White about the session, and they decided she would try to start working on him again. Meanwhile, scans in July and October showed that the cancer was still there, but not spreading, and some lesions had even shrunk slightly. "My doctors were really happy," she said, "but I was very disappointed."
Lee continued to work with White as he prepared for the 2022 Winter Olympics, pushing through constant exhaustion, because "to feel useful again — and to feel needed again — was such a turning point for me."
She was able to travel to Beijing to see White compete in his final Olympics, and realized there that she felt better than she had in a long time.
"I think it exponentially healed me physically," she said. "It's done wonders, just being around [White], being around the high level of physicality, and to be around my friend again. … I've just been in tears every day because I'm so grateful. … I've told him multiple times along the way, 'I need you just as much as you need me.' "
And seeing White succeed again — though he didn't medal at the 2022 games, he finished just off the podium in fourth in the men's halfpipe, and ending his career well was an achievement — has been joyful for both him and Lee.
"We've both just been crybabies," Lee told PEOPLE, "but such happy tears and just full of just gratitude for where we're both at, and the opportunity for us to share this together."
Now, close to the two-year anniversary of her diagnosis, Lee feels "like I have a bonus life," she told SI.
"I shouldn't be here. So it's given me such a whole different coating of life. I see things so differently."