In a first for Hong Kong, university project offers emotional support to cancer sufferers

Once they are hired, about 40 health care staff will provide screening and mental health advice to patients and carers once they are diagnosed with cancer

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 August, 2017, 7:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 August, 2017, 7:00am

Like other cancer survivors who completed long and painful treatment and survived, Ng was troubled by many lingering physical symptoms such as chest pains, breathing difficulties and endless tiredness. This left her worrying all the time about whether her breast cancer was making a comeback.

The mother of two in her 40s said she felt emotionally distressed and had no way to understand whether these symptoms were problematic until she received help from the University of Hong Kong, which is developing a revolutionary care model to screen cancer patients suffering emotional distress.

“I often felt shortness of breath and chest distress and I needed a lot of sleep but would still feel very tired afterwards,” said Ng, who gave only her surname.

“I was always worried that I might be suffering a reoccurrence and that the cancer might have already spread to my lungs.”

Hong Kong’s first cancer centre to provide advanced treatments for city’s biggest killer

Her psychological condition was discovered after an examination conducted at Queen Mary Hospital under a project headed by Dr Wendy Lam Wing-tak, head of behavioural sciences at the university’s school of public health.

“After the counselling, I knew these physical symptoms were perfectly normal following chemotherapy. So I stopped worrying about it. Dr Lam suggested that I do yoga to rebuild my body strength and that helped a lot,” Ng said.

Lam said it was common for cancer sufferers to develop emotional problems. Without support, around one in five cancer patients display some serious psychological conditions such as depression and anxiety.

In a first for Hong Kong, Lam’s team is hiring about 40 health care staff to provide screening and mental health advice to cancer patients and their carers once they are diagnosed with the illness.

It is part of a plan for the university to develop the city’s first cancer centre in Grantham Hospital. It has been made possible by a record HK$1.24 billion donation from the Jockey Club.

“There is an absence of integrated services in Hong Kong as hospitals often focus on clinical treatment and research,” Lam said. “They never put a lot of emphasis on psychological services, which are usually provided by non-government organisations.”

A Hong Kong centre to warm the hearts of cancer sufferers

She explained the institute would screen cancer patients and identify those in need of mental health support once they were diagnosed and then provide them with counselling.

“All affluent cities around the world have cancer centres to provide comprehensive care such as Singapore, the UK and the US. The question is why Hong Kong still doesn’t have one?” faculty of medicine dean Professor Gabriel Leung said.

Leung, the brain behind the billion-dollar project, said it was an international trend to provide psychological support for patients and family members.

The new hospital is expected to be operational by 2025, after which it will house Lam’s team in its Institute of Cancer Care. It is expected to benefit 32,000 sufferers and their care givers every year.

The hospital’s Centre for Clinical Innovation and Discovery will provide the city’s first public cell-based treatment facility.