Lending a hand in need

Lending a hand in need

Breast cancer is common today, so spotting the signs and giving sufferers support are very important for their recovery

Actress Angelina Jolie had a preventive double mastectomy recently after learning she carried a gene that made her chances of getting breast cancer as high as 85 per cent. Her choice has aroused much public attention on the disease.

Breast cancer is the most common of the three life-threatening types of cancer affecting women in Hong Kong, says Dr Polly Cheung Suk-yee, founder of the Hong Kong Breast Cancer Foundation (HKBCF).

Cheung says that 8.3 cases of breast cancer are reported every day, with 1.5 fatal cases. There is also a one-in-19 risk that a woman will get breast cancer in her lifetime.

Cheung finds that there is still a lack of awareness about the disease.

"An undergraduate who had stage-three breast cancer wasn't even aware of it," she says. "You [might] expect a highly educated person would know more [about their health problems] but that's not the case."

The older you are, the greater the risk of contracting breast cancer, but Cheung says young people are not immune to it. The youngest case reported was below 20 years old.

"It's very important for people to feel and look for change during self-examinations, and to have regular body checks," she says.

Breast cancer can happen to anybody at any time. It happened to Mary Hemrajani in 2006, when she was 48 years old.

"I felt a small lump on my left breast when I was taking a shower," says Hemrajani, HKBCF's vice-chairman. Like many women, she did not think too much about it and expected it to disappear on its own. But it did not.

"It grew very quickly to about five centimetres within the next few months," she recalls. "When I finally went to see the doctor, I was told the cancer was at stage two." Hemrajani needed to remove her whole breast. Then she underwent about six months of chemotherapy, followed by five years of hormonal therapy. She had the usual side-effects, such as vomiting and losing all her hair. It was a long, dark period in her life.

"I kept asking myself, 'Why me?'," she says. "I was angry. It felt [it was] like some kind of punishment, but I [hadn't done anything wrong] and I was living a healthy life."

Luckily, Hemrajani found the support she needed at the HKBCF.

"They offered a lot of information, which helped me understand more about what I'd go through. Knowledge helps to minimise fear," she says. "I joined the patient support group and found help from other patients facing the same challenge. Meeting others who had been through the same thing showed me that I could make it through, too."

But Hemrajani says the greatest support came from her husband and daughter.

"My husband was there with me through every single treatment. My daughter would cry in secret, fearing that I would be upset. With my family and peers, I knew I wasn't facing it alone," she says.

The experience led Hemrajani to become an advocate for breast cancer awareness. She became a volunteer in 2007 and then vice-chairman of the foundation three years ago.

It also taught her valuable life lessons.

"Now I take care of my health and exercise regularly," she says. "And I treasure my family and friends, and every moment of my life."

You can support the foundation by attending its charity concert on June 23. For details, visit: www.hkbcf.org.

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