Friday, November 27, 2015   

Survivors' tales

Apple Lam

Tuesday, May 28, 2013


Actress Angelina Jolie's brave decision to undergo a double mastectomy has triggered many women to consider getting one too to reduce their risk of getting breast cancer. But Peter Choi Ho-keung, a specialist in clinical oncology with more than 30 years of experience, said such a drastic measure may not be necessary - as the cancer is hereditary in only 10 percent of patients.

"I will emphasize that this is an individual's decision. I will not advise everyone diagnosed with regular mutation [of breast cancer cells] to take this action without thorough consideration and without thorough consultation with a doctor, a psychologist and a genetic counselor," Choi said.

And the experiences of breast cancer survivors are testaments that support and care are available on the road to recovery and beyond. The Hong Kong Breast Cancer Foundation announced that starting this year, May will be Breast Cancer Survivorship Month.

This month it organized events such as concerts and day camps to recognize breast cancer survivors and their carers. The day camp, for example, connected women who have just undergone treatment with long-time survivors, who are sources of support and advice.

Foundation chairwoman Eliza Fok Ho Yi-wah, who was diagnosed with breast cancer a decade ago, said not much is known about the experiences of breast cancer survivors. "Even after you recover, it stays with you forever. You're constantly scared of a relapse," she said.

Fok said that although survivors come from all walks of life, they tend to share one concern: staying healthy.

According to the Hong Kong Breast Cancer Registry Report No 4 published last year, the four most common risk factors are lack of exercise, not breastfeeding your children, a high level of stress and being overweight or obese. These risk factors were derived from analyzing 7,421 breast cancer patients enrolled in the registry.

A survivor, Vivian Lee Wai-kwan, does yoga and sleeps at 9pm every day, which she started doing only after she got breast cancer. She and her husband Lee Kung-yee now volunteer at the foundation.

Lee, now 59, was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer three years ago, with a 2.5-centimeter tumor on her right breast and a small non-cancerous tumor on the left.

She opted for a mastectomy of her right breast. She continues to take medicine every day, a component of her treatment that won't end until two years later.

"Many say the medicine and the treatment has an impact on you but I think the psychological impact is much greater," she said. She went through an emotional roller coaster and often cried for no particular reason. Her biggest fear was that she would not make it through the next month.

Her husband said the experience of accompanying her during the bad times taught him how to be a patient and good listener, adding: "During and after recovery, husbands can help a lot. Other family members can support her too, but because they often have their own families to take care of, their support may be inadequate."

While regular exercise and a healthy diet can help reduce your risk of getting breast cancer, some women may be simply genetically predisposed to the disease. Lee has never taken the genetic test and does not plan on getting her 28-year-old daughter to take it either.

Instead, she encouraged women to get the regular checks for breast cancer - usually consisting of a doctor's examination, an ultrasound and a mammogram - early on.

"As women, we have to look after our bodies. We have to pay attention to the changes in our bodies at the right moments," she said.

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