Putting fears into words to help fight breast cancer

Book that addresses patients' anxieties published by Breast Cancer Foundation chairwoman, who speaks from experience

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 July, 2014, 3:16am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 July, 2014, 3:16am

Being diagnosed with breast cancer gives rise to fears and feelings that touch on the most basic levels of what it is to be a woman and to be facing a disease that has the potential to prove fatal, says Eliza Fok Ho Yi-wah, who found that out the hard way. She is now trying to help other women facing those same challenges.

In the past year, the Breast Cancer Foundation chairwoman has talked to some 80 breast cancer survivors, and turned their experiences, together with her own, into a book. It has just been published, and tackles questions ranging from treatment methods to how men perceive women who have lost a breast.

Fok is the wife of Hutchison Whampoa managing director Canning Fok Kin-ning, who is billionaire Li Ka-shing's top aide. She was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer in 2003 and made a full recovery after surgery and treatment.

"I thought I had already recovered and was settled within myself. I forced myself to forget about the ordeal," she said. But as time went on she realised she had unfinished business.

In 2010, she took on the job of chairwoman for the foundation because she felt the need to help other sufferers after being the recipient of such help during her own fight with cancer.

Two of those there for her were her predecessor Joanna Choi Leung Yuen-mei, who acted as a mentor during her sickness, and Dr Polly Cheung Suk-yee, the foundation's founder.

Fok's attempt to help ease patients' fears with her book meant she had to revisit some of the emotions she felt after being diagnosed. She has emerged from the process feeling emotionally healed. "I put some negative emotions to rest," she added.

One of the things she had been unable to come to terms with was whether she had rushed into the decision to go ahead with the breast removal surgery.

She had the operation within two to three days of the diagnosis. However, doctors later said that the surgery could have waited for up to four weeks. "I asked myself, why did I do it so quickly? Did I regret it?" she said.

Now, she is encouraging fellow patients not to agonise over the decisions they took.

Looking back, she realised that losing a breast was not as big a problem as she had thought.

"Many women cannot accept themselves when they lose a breast," Fok said. "They feel as if they're incomplete and have lost a part of their womanhood. All survivors had worries about this."

Fok said she had seen women end loving relationships because of it. In her book, she tells of a young patient whose boyfriend proposed after learning that she had breast cancer, and stood by her when the cancer recurred. She also talked to a survivor's husband who was able to reassure women that their health will always be the priority of the people who love them, not their breasts.

Fok wanted to make sure women struggling in the throes of diagnosis and treatment understood that a couple's closeness comes from understanding and communication.

Being a mother of four herself, she also encourages patients to explain the disease and its consequences to their children.

When she was diagnosed with cancer, her two older children were at university in Britain and the younger two were in secondary school. She was having difficulty enough accepting her breast cancer and believed handling the children's emotions would just make the situation more challenging. The older pair were also facing examinations, so she decided to put off telling them the news.

When she did break it to them, of their own accord they researched the disease and ended up giving her much-needed support while she was undergoing chemotherapy.

Fok also realised her two younger children were growing anxious as the new school year approached; they were unsure of how to face their teachers and classmates' parents. Fok ended up fully explaining her condition to them and advised them how to answer people's questions.

Fok said that no matter how much women tried to hide it, children were smart enough to know when their mothers were suffering. Communicating with children about the disease was also a good chance to educate them about life, she added.

Her battle with cancer had taught her many life lessons, too, said Fok. These were further enhanced when she talked to three terminally ill patients for the book. "For those of us who have recovered, we focus on staying healthy, but they're at a whole other level, thinking of how to find meaning in life," she said.

For some, it meant they started living for themselves for the first time and letting go of regrets. "Is this something that we think about only with end-stage cancer?" Fok asked. "Isn't it something that we should consider every day?"

Falling ill also taught her to treat herself better, as a prerequisite for being able to take care of others. She gives an example of this at its most simple level: while she used to wait hungrily for her husband and children to return home before having dinner, sometimes as late as 11pm, she now dines at 7.30pm - and sometimes eats again with them later.

"I found that cancer was a turning point in life for many patients. After getting past it, there's a whole new world," Fok said.

She compared having cancer to a caterpillar retreating into its cocoon. It might seem that life is coming to an end, but, of course, the caterpillar emerges into a wonderful new life as a butterfly.

When she was first diagnosed with cancer, Fok asked herself, "Why did this happen to me?" She had lived a healthy lifestyle, exercised regularly, and, did not have to work so had none of the associated stress.

She still doesn't understand why she got the disease, only she now asks: "Why shouldn't it be me?"

Though having cancer is an unfortunate experience, she believes she gained more than she lost. She changed her attitude towards life and re-prioritised things.

Her book is not just about patients' experiences, it is also filled with useful information, all approved by doctors.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women in Hong Kong. In 2011, the latest figures available, there were 3,440 new cases and 554 deaths from the disease.

Fok has been actively advocating for a screening programme in the city and encouraging women to have regular check-ups meanwhile. "Women need to take good care of themselves - in order to take good care of your family, you need to take good care of yourself," she said.