Three breast cancer survivors share their stories of anguish and of hope BREAST CANCER IS the furthest thing from a woman's mind when she is planning for the future. But fate can sometimes take an inexplicable twist. The first diagnosis brings desperation. With up to 2,000 new cases of breast cancer detected in Hong Kong each year, these stories of three survivors hold lessons for all women. As a single mother, Kwong Yuet-wan, 54, had toiled for many years to fund an overseas education for her two children. Then, on the eve of her retirement in 2002, she discovered a lump in her breast. She was quickly diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer, a disease she knew little about. Catina Lee, 47, a busy working woman, believed the painless lump in her breast was a fibroid. But a medical check-up at her family's insistence in 1997 revealed Stage 0, the earliest stage of cancer. Winnie Wong, 40, the mother of two girls, ignored the painless lump in her breast for two years, allowing it to escalate to Stage 2 cancer by 1997. Cancer changed their lives. Mrs Kwong and Ms Lee underwent lumpectomies. Mrs Wong had a mastectomy. They each faced the intense distress of post-surgical chemotherapy treatments necessary to prevent relapses. When the doctor recommended a post-surgical course of chemotherapy, Mrs Kwong readily accepted, unaware of what the terrible side-effects of the treatment would be. 'I thought it would be like a flu shot,' she said. 'But the side effects were nightmarish ... With 31 sessions of radiotherapy and the shots for chemotherapy, my skin shed and itched and I threw up anything I ate. Bundles of hair fell out at the slightest touch.' Mrs Wong paid a price for ignoring her cancer for two years. Even when she realised she had the disease, she failed to visit a doctor for months. 'To me, breast cancer was a death sentence,' she said. 'All I could think of was losing all my hair and crying all day. The more I thought about it, the more I resisted facing the doctor. I just wanted to run away from it.' Ms Lee had had regular cervical cancer tests, but paid little attention to the health of her breasts. 'I knew nothing about breast health,' she said. 'So when I felt a lump in my breast, I thought it was a fibroid and didn't bother to examine it further. I was so tied up with work that I had no time for doctors.' Luckily, her family's insistence resulted in early intervention. Being diagnosed with breast cancer brings fear and desperation. Mrs Wong wept every day when she realised she would lose a breast. And Mrs Kwong suffered psychosocial trauma. Being a single mother, she had no one to share her fears with. After the operation and treatment, she wore a hat to cover her baldness and a mask to keep out infection. People shied away from her. 'On the bus, they would never sit next to me even if the seat next to me was empty,' she said. Support groups provided relief and courage to these women. After Mrs Kwong joined CancerLink, the support service of the Hong Kong Cancer Fund, a volunteer known as a Care-Giver accompanied her to treatments. 'I felt so relieved. The Care-Giver offered help and advice, giving me practical solutions on nutrition, coping with the side effects of the treatment and skin care. She gave me hope [for] the future,' she said. At the end of her course of treatment, the Care-Giver introduced Mrs Kwong to a Buddy - a cancer survivor who shared her own triumphs over cancer. CancerLink gave Mrs Kwong hope. 'With the support of somebody who understands and reassures, you can fight anything,' she said. Ms Lee joined the volunteers at the Cancer Patient Resource Centre of Queen Elizabeth Hospital, getting involved in not only sharing her experience with new patients, but promoting breast cancer awareness among the public. 'Hong Kong women tend to avoid the topic of breast cancer,' she said. 'To break the barrier, we need to work hard to really get the message across.' Mrs Wong cautions other women. 'Undergo regular breast check-ups,' she said. 'Act immediately if an abnormality is detected. Early detection saves lives. I always remind my two daughters to check themselves regularly.' Breast cancer survivors Lau Mei-yin and Kwong Yuet-wan share strength.