Star tackles challenge with a little faith

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 November, 2007, 12:00am

Until she was diagnosed with breast cancer 2 1/2 years ago, TV presenter-actress Esther Wan yue-hung never imagined she would get such a disease.

She was fit, healthy and, at just 35 years old, the attractive actress had been working her way up the TVB food chain for eight years after being hand-picked by TV executives to join the station as a Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts graduate.

But not even the glamour of her profession could protect her from getting cancer.

When Ms Wan noticed what felt like a piece of soft bone inside her left breast, she began talking to her friends about it.

'I was afraid of going to the doctor and tried to delude myself into thinking that this was nothing to worry about, especially as my friends told me it was common, and that they had lumpy breasts too,' she explained.

A few months later, when it became obvious that the hardness wasn't disappearing, Ms Wan realised that she could no longer delay a visit to the doctor.

The diagnosis was unexpected and terrifying: the cancer in her breast had already spread to the nymph nodes, and she had tumour that was 11cm long.

'The doctor said my tumour had been particularly difficult to detect through self examination because it was growing long-ways rather than round,' she said.

Ms Wan was immediately put on an 18-week chemotherapy treatment course in the hopes of shrinking the tumour before having surgery and, although the treatment worked, it came at a price as the side effects were almost unbearable.

'Chemotherapy really affected my nerves and made my hands and feet incredibly itchy and numb,' she said.

'I was sick and had no appetite, but I knew that I had to eat as much as possible to keep my energy levels up so that I could continue the treatment.'

The reality of having cancer hit home when midway through the chemotherapy treatment, Ms Wan caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. 'I burst into tears. I barely recognised myself. I had lost almost all my hair, my face was swollen and I had acne.

'I didn't dwell on the sadness for too long though because I knew this was only temporary,' she added.

Frustrated with what little hair she had left on her head, she eventually decided to have it all shaved off.

A Christian for 10 years, Ms Wan said that her faith anchored her through her arduous battle with cancer. 'My religion helped me to appreciate every person's value in sickness and in health,' she said.

'Just in the same way a HK$500 note is worth HK$500 even when it is creased, a person's value is inherent, regardless of whether they are ill or healthy.'

Such a conviction kept her upbeat and allowed her to live as normal a life as possible, even during the trials of her treatment. With her work schedule reduced to just two days out of every three weeks, she continued to present her TV shows, despite the exhaustion.

Ms Wan did not want to have a mastectomy, and requested smaller surgery to remove only what was left of the tumour and not the entire breast. But her doctor was insistent about the benefits of full breast removal, particularly since the tumour had spread to the lymph nodes. For her mastectomy, skin and fat were taken from her stomach and were used to reconstruct a more natural looking and feeling breast.

'The two days following the surgery were excruciatingly painful. I was weak, and walked bent double like an old woman because the stomach wound where they had taken the fat was still fresh,' she said.

Though given the option of more radiotherapy as a precautionary measure, she turned it down at the eleventh hour because the thought of enduring more side effects was insufferable.

The cancer has not altered Ms Wan's lifestyle in a way one would expect (apart from prompting her to eat more frequently at home). 'My goal is not only to be healthy. I don't want to sacrifice everything I enjoy just being healthy, so I still go to bed late and eat normally,' she said.

What has changed on a more profound level, however, is her perspective of life and how she should live it.

'I used to set very high standards and put a lot of pressure on myself to meet them, but now I am more relaxed and ready to forgive myself even when I don't succeed. And rather than thinking only about myself, I want to contribute something back to society.'