A young woman can tell you about it. At 18, Emily (not her real name) had more than her school exams to worry about. One day she discovered a lump in one of her breasts. Within a few weeks her fears were confirmed: she had breast cancer.
"I cried. I was so upset. I didn't understand why it had happened to me. I was so young then," says Emily who is now in her mid-30s.
She had two surgeries to remove the lump, then six months of chemotherapy.
Her cancer was gone and her life returned to normal. Or so she thought.
She started working and dating. She was honest with her boyfriend about her medical history. "I didn't want to lie to him," she says. "Honestly, I didn't think anybody would want to marry me. Most men would want a healthy woman."
However, he was understanding and they later married and began planning a family. But when she was 28, her cancer returned; facing a new operation and months more of chemotherapy, she felt her fighting spirit was spent.
"I didn't want to face it again. I didn't want to walk into the [treatment] room. Just the smell of medicine would make me vomit," Emily recalls.
Yet she persisted, thanks to support from her friends and family. "I'm grateful for my family. My mum and sisters took excellent care of me. My relatives paid me warm visits," she says.
She also drew some encouragement from the Young Patient Support Group at the Hong Kong Breast Cancer Foundation.
The HKBCF was founded in July 2010 by a group of registered nurses to offer emotional support and medical information for breast cancer patients under 40 years old.
Doris Cheung Chun-ho, senior health officer in charge of the group, says: "Once diagnosed, patients often feel anxious and helpless. They don't know what to do. Many are concerned about the impact of the treatment and how it would affect their relationships and work.
"We offer them encouragement, support and empathy. Being able to share with fellow patients and past survivors is particular helpful to them."
About 2,600 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year in Hong Kong. One out of seven patients dies of the disease.
When Emily was 32, she was diagnosed with cancer for the third time and her hopes of becoming a mother were dashed. She felt shattered, but her husband stood by her and she eventually learned to accept her fate. "I just had to let go," she says.
Her long battle with the disease has helped change her approach to life. "I used to be a perfectionist who wanted everything to be done in the best way," she says. "Now, I am more relaxed about things. I don't argue with my husband any more. I don't get stressed about work. I know I need to give my body rest."
Since her last operation in 2009, Emily has been free of cancer. Yet naturally enough, she is concerned that the disease might return yet again.
"It would be a lie if I told you I was not afraid," Emily says. "But I say to myself: if it comes back, the doctor will fix it for me and I'll be fine. If this is meant to be a test, the experience has certainly helped me to become a more positive person."
Breast cancer screening is a must
The HKBCF reports that one in 21 women may develop breast cancer.
Early detection is vital for more effective treatment and less suffering for patients.
It is recommended that women of all ages undergo regular screening. Young women below 40 should do a self-examination every month. Every three years they should also see a doctor for a more thorough checkup.
Watch this tutorial on how to perform a self-examination at bhc.hkbcf.org/steps.php.