Hong Kong cancer sufferer learns to open up about her illness – how others can learn from her
Diagnosed with a rare tissue cancer, Mandy Yau, 21, kept her illness from her friends for six years, but now bravely details her life through her Facebook page, and is determined to pack as much into life as she can in the time she has
Mandy Man-yi Yau was 15 when she found a lump on her leg and saw a doctor. She soon learned she had a rare tissue cancer – alveolar soft part sarcoma (ASPS) – and it had spread to her lungs.
Since then, she has endured surgery and six bouts of chemotherapy, and a year-long hiatus from secondary school. This strong-willed young woman refuses to ask the doctor about her prognosis, though.
“I never ask because I think it’s useless, it’s just a prediction, you will never know [how long you’ve got],” she said.
The news in 2011 hit the then teenager like a hammer blow, triggering a dark period. Her doctor’s callous reaction didn’t help. “‘Why are you crying? You should have prepared for death when I told you [in the previous visit] you have cancer,’ those were his exact words,” Yau recalls.
Some people simply have no grounding in how to interact with someone who is incurably ill, especially if they are an adolescent. During her absence from school, Yau became the subject of gossip and soon discovered the quality of her friends, one of whom remarked that she had taken a break to have an abortion.
For six long years, Yau retreated, choosing to keep her illness under wraps. “I thought it would be useless [to tell anyone about my condition] as, when I did, I didn’t get the encouragement or support that I needed.” However, harbouring this secret took a mental toll.
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All that changed this year. Two years ago, Yau read social media posts from another cancer victim in her 20s who was coping with her condition in a positive way. (She eventually succumbed to her illness at 23). Also, a decision to visit Tibet with a group of friends heightened her urge to disclose her secret.
“I was afraid, what if something happened to me? I didn’t want them to not know [what was going on],” she says.
Now her close friends know about her condition and give their support. Yau details her life through her Facebook page. Her posts on the social network include details about her past struggles along with valuable advice on how people should interact with the sick or dying.
“Everyone will die or get sick … if I share my story including bad experiences I had before, I hope other people will know what to do if they face the same situation,” she says.
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One tip she shares on interacting with a cancer sufferer is to avoid unwelcome comments such as, “You’re very unlucky”, a remark she faced regularly. “What people should do is just accompany them, that’s enough,” she says, adding that action – in the form of support – speaks volumes.
Now she readily opens up about her condition, to strangers and loved ones. Her older brother, Matt, who was initially left in the dark about her illness, is a solid supporter who knows what she is facing. “We didn’t have a very close relationship before, since he didn’t live with us for several years,” she says. “I decided to open my heart [to him] and now we have a very close and strong bond.”
Support is vital for cancer victims and she was surprised to gain so much from her peers – even strangers. Yau chronicles the progress of her condition, including how her illness has spread to her brain, garnering outpourings of messages of support. “Everyone’s reaction has been positive,” she says, beaming.
Yau hopes to publish a book about her experiences. She encourages other cancer patients to find support, but to also harness social media to unburden themselves and connect with others, methods that helped her relax and deal with the complexities of cancer in greater comfort.
A lack of artifice characterises her interactions now. “I never need to think ‘What should I hide?’ as I just say everything out loud and [people] understand, and because I stay very true to myself.”
She is carrying on with life – enrolled in cultural studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, even taking karate classes at the institution. She acquired a yellow belt in June.
Yau says her planning days are over; she has made it her mission to go after her most desired wishes, without delay. That includes more travelling.
“I never wait now as I don’t know how long I have,” she says, noting that when she wanted her first glimpse of snow, she travelled to Harbin, and visited Kuwait and Dubai to see deserts.
A recent field trip to Tibet was cut short when she lost the ability to move her left limbs, due to her illness. She hopes to regain her mobility to be able to travel again.
Yau encourages others with cancer and other diseases to seek support and try to keep living as full a life as possible.
Even those like her with limited mobility can work out ways to accomplish goals, this young fighter insists. Social media has become her lifeline in many ways, including in accomplishing her latest wish: “I want to be famous,” she says with a laugh.