In July, Ng Mau-fat, a senior fire services official, visited a terminally ill colleague in hospital. The patient, an ambulance man, immediately covered his head with a blanket and whispered to Mr Ng: 'Please do me a favour. Tell people not to visit me. I don't want to see anyone.' Mr Ng was at a loss. Not knowing what to do, he simply patted the man's shoulder and replied: 'Take more rest.' He then walked out of the ward, feeling helpless. The ambulance man, in his 50s, died a week later of bone cancer. He is survived by his wife and two teenage children. Back in his office, Mr Ng, divisional welfare officer of the Fire Services Department, realised there was a desperate need for a professional counselling service for colleagues with cancer. With an increasing number of cancer cases every year, he felt that more concern should be shown to these patients. It was this that inspired him to set up the Staff Cancer Care and Support Group, recruiting voluntary workers through the department's intranet. So far, 15 suitable members, some former cancer patients, have been recruited. In order to equip members with adequate counselling knowledge and skills, Mr Ng, the group's team leader, enrolled in a counselling diploma course. He also arranged for members to attend seminars and training programmes offered by the Hong Kong Anti-Cancer Society and CancerLink. The Hong Kong Fire Services Christian Fellowship was also set up to help colleagues with cancer who wanted a Christian support group. Details of the counselling service have been posted on the department's intranet and in in-house publications. Out of 30 known cases, 11 staff suffering with cancer have approached the group. They are either currently receiving treatment or have already recovered. The group aims to visit patients in hospital, at home or in the workplace. 'We hope to provide quality counselling to these unfortunate colleagues,' Mr Ng said. 'As firemen, our major roles are to save lives and extinguish fires. But if we are to carry out these missions, we must ensure that our staff are in good spirits. If our colleagues are under stress because a family member has cancer, we can offer their relatives a counselling service.' But the group's work is challenging. Mr Ng said that in many cases it could take a while before patients are willing to speak about their illness. 'After a long chat with one principal fireman we visited, he finally told us that he didn't know why God was so unfair to him. He was a non-smoker, non-alcoholic, and led a healthy and sporty life. He did a great deal of voluntary work and didn't think he should have cancer. 'He feared the terrible physical changes after receiving chemotherapy. He worried about the large medical bills he had to pay, and what would happen to his home mortgage if he lost his ability to work. For such emotional patients, our voluntary workers who are former cancer patients would better understand their problems, fears and worries. The counselling they provide would be more effective,' he said. In one compelling case, the group visited a fireman with cancer, and his wife, at their home. The couple finally had a chance to voice their accumulated stress. They talked about their pain and broke down in tears. Ultimately they found the counselling useful. There is no limit on the number of visits to each cancer patient - it all depends on individual needs. Voluntary group member So Chun-sing said that firemen project a strong image and they did not want to show vulnerability. 'As a fireman and former nasopharyngeal carcinoma cancer patient, I understand their problems and needs. I can share my experiences with them and help them reduce their suffering. They sometimes become emotional and cry in front of me,' said Mr So, a senior fireman from the licensing department. 'Throughout my career, I've come across many lives and deaths. Cancer is no big deal to me. It's just an illness. One should be confident in conquering it and never give up.' Mr So said that apart from helping people and finding it personally satisfying, the work had helped him come to terms with the disease: 'Having seen so many unfortunate incidents happen, if it falls on to me again, I'll take it easy.' Venus Cheng Wing-shuet, centre in charge, CancerLink Support Centre, Wong Tai Sin, said the training and consultancy it provided covered visits to homes and hospitals. She said volunteers had many things to consider, for example, if the patient was undergoing chemotherapy their immunity could be weak, and it would be inappropriate to have too many visitors. She explained that there were rules and regulations to follow for hospital visits. For instance, volunteers must find out when it is best to visit and where they should sit. While it would be helpful to have former cancer patients provide counselling, Ms Cheng said volunteers who had not suffered from the disease could help balance other parties' emotions. She pointed out that this was particularly true when it came to cases involving patients who were terminally ill.