My awakening after being diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 37

Amy Wu is glad she listened to her body and got checked, against advice

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 May, 2013, 1:34pm

Not me. This must be some mistake or a poorly executed joke, I thought. I am a healthy, athletic woman in my 30s. I have no medical history. I have never taken a sick day, so the news to come was especially hard to swallow.

Three weeks ago on May 8, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I am still living with the shock, the reality and the weight of the sentence. I am 37. Friends know me as a swimming fanatic. I eat fairly healthily, with my main weaknesses being chocolate and red wine (in moderation, of course). I have no family history of the disease.

The journey started with a phone call. The doctor on the phone delivered the results without pause. "High-grade DCIS," she said matter-of-factly; ductal carcinoma in situ, a fast-growing cancerous lump comparable to a serial killer contained in one country. Fortunately it appears to be in the very early stages, if not a stage 0 to stage 1.

I responded, stunned, with "Oh, um, yes, OK" and then cut to the chase. "Listen, is this a matter of life and death?" I asked. "If I were you, I would get it taken care of as soon as possible," she said.

Despite being doctor-phobic, I went into fighter mode. I booked an appointment with a breast surgeon, and scheduled surgery a week after the diagnosis. I opted for a lumpectomy, [breast lump removal] not once considering losing the entire breast. The good news is that early reports show that the lymph nodes are 95 per cent clear of cancer (there is no 100 per cent in this cancer game). I am told the next step of the journey is a round of radiation therapy, which would cut the chance of reoccurrence from 30 per cent to 10 per cent.

In many ways, it feels like a chapter in my life has closed and another has opened. Sometimes when I recount what happened, it still feels surreal, but I am not alone. Breast cancer is now one of the most common cancers affecting women in Hong Kong and cases have doubled from 1,152 in 1993 to 3,014 in 2010. On average, about eight women are diagnosed with breast cancer every day, according to the Hong Kong Breast Cancer Foundation. The youngest case is a woman under 20.

I jokingly tell friends that I feel like I've been hit by lightning; according to the US Cancer Institute, a 40-year-old woman has a 1.7 per cent chance of breast cancer.

In the aftermath, I feel incredibly cursed at times and incredibly blessed. The most common question from friends is how did I find out, which ignites the advocate in me.

Being suspicious saved my life. I demanded a referral for a mammogram - despite being told by the doctor that it was not necessary for women under 40 - in April when I felt the lump.

Despite being told I had nothing to worry about, that it could be benign, a cyst, a fibroid (about 80 per cent of lumps are benign), my gut told me this wasn't good. In one day, I checked off the mammogram, ultrasound and a core biopsy. I am glad that I listened to my body. If I had waited another year or two, the stage 0 would have most likely been a 3 or 4.

The week I was diagnosed, the disease was in the spotlight when movie star Angelina Jolie came out with her New York Times article about her double mastectomy. Kudos to Jolie for encouraging and inspiring young women to take the issue seriously, and check themselves, go for yearly exams, to veer on the cautious side, and to ignore the voice that says "I'm too young, it won't be me".

My life has now taken a shift. I am reflecting on my priorities, lifestyle and mindset and am giving all three a facelift.

After a friend visited me in hospital, I wrote to her: "You got my mind moving in a positive direction; indeed, a closed door means an open window - permission to enjoy life and try new things and activities."

"Great! Do take some time to think about what truly matters from this point on," she replied.

I knew there and then that the journey, with all of its ups and downs, had just started. I was in for the ride.

Amy Wu is an American-born Chinese writer and commentator now living in Hong Kong