How one breast cancer survivor turned despair into determination to help other Hong Kong women
Originally published at the South China Morning Post on October 1, 2016.
Breast cancer survivor Emily Ng recalled breaking down in tears at the doctor’s office when she was told that she may have to have her left breast surgically removed as part of her treatment.
It was 2010, and Ng had just completed her annual medical check-up when she received a call saying that she needed to go for a mammogram X-ray exam.
After a few examinations, she was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer, and the doctor said that she would have to undergo a partial mastectomy.
“I felt awful. I didn’t want to talk to anybody about it,” Ng, who is in her fifties, said. “(Afterwards) I was lying in bed pretending that it wasn’t happening, that it’s only a nightmare. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me.”
Ng had two operations, and doctors used a new technique that minimised the cut and allowed her to keep most of her breast.
Although her recovery was rapid, she never forgot the sense of despair she felt at that moment, and how fortunate she was for surviving breast cancer. She felt inspired and decided to give back – by creating what she called a “supportive bra” for patients recovering from breast removal surgery.
“After going through treatment ... you’d need something more comfortable because your wound hasn’t healed yet. I knew what types of materials would be more comfortable and better, because I myself am one of the survivors,” Ng, who worked for two decades as a marketing and sales professional in the bra industry, said.
“(At the hospital) I remember seeing patients wearing very heavy coats to hide their bodies. Breasts are a very important female symbol.”
In May, the Post reported the number of breast cancer cases are projected to rise by 44 per cent in 2025. The report said that one in 17 women in Hong Kong was now diagnosed with breast cancer, compared with one in 22 in 2005.
There were also 3,524 cases registered in 2013, with an about 17 per cent mortality rate, according to the Hong Kong Cancer Registry’s latest statistics.
Dr Sharon Chan Wing-wai, consultant surgeon at the United Christian Hospital, said that doctors suspect the growing number of cases is a result of lifestyle and dietary changes.
The trend may also be linked to higher intake or exposure to oestrogen, which can stimulate tumour growth and cause genetic changes, she added.
“Every woman should have more knowledge and awareness on breast cancer,” Chan said, adding that she had seen many patients who waited too long before seeing a doctor because they were scared or wanted to avoid the situation.
“Seeing a doctor in the early stages [is better]. Now, there are a lot of misunderstandings that can cause a misdiagnosis or late diagnosis.”
According to Chan, women should check their breasts for lumps and other abnormalities every month after menstruation starting from the age of 40. They should also begin mammogram screenings every two years. Although studies in the West have shown they can reduce the mortality rate by 30 per cent, Hong Kong currently has no publicly funded screening programme for breast cancer, she added.
Since 2011, Ng has delivered about four orders of bras to the United Christian Hospital – free of charge – with about 500 to 1,000 bras per order.
She works to keep a constant supply of bras in various sizes, and is regularly finding suppliers and manufacturers willing to sponsor the project and keep it going. Last year, Ng also delivered one order to Kwong Wah Hospital.
“I’m open to expanding [the project] depending on requests from other hospitals,” Ng said.
Shelly Leung, a 48-year-old breast cancer survivor, wore Ng’s supportive bra for about two months after going through a mastectomy that removed her right breast in May. Diagnosed in April, she urged women to be vigilant about their health and not be ashamed of their bodies post-surgery.
“At first, I felt like I had lost a bit of myself,” Leung said, adding that the bra really helped her regain her confidence. “In the end, you have to remember that life is precious and important.”