First-time mum's cancer battle

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 April, 2015, 6:05am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 April, 2015, 6:05am

Pregnancy can be nerve-racking for a first-time mum. In Vivian Luk Hil-man's case, the fears were more than justified. An odd lump she found on her back kept growing, so her doctor ordered a biopsy after she reached the second trimester, when the procedure would be less risky for the child. The result confirmed their worst suspicions.

A bridal gown designer, Luk was packing to leave the hospital a week after the operation when the medical team came into her room with the diagnosis.

"The surgeon spoke first - he told me that it was cancer and we would have to be in another operation. I pretty much said to him if it's something that we need to take out, let's take it out. I was very calm," Luk recalls.

"But as soon as the obstetrician started talking, I started crying. I couldn't help myself. I felt really bad. It would be OK if it happened to me. But it would be unfair that this had to happen to my daughter indirectly. Why would she have to go through another operation when it's a tumour in me. I was very scared."

The good thing was the surgeon scheduled the procedure to remove her tumour soon after so there were just a few days for that information to really sink in. Luk tried not to think about it too much and meditated.

"It was the hardest in the morning because when you wake up, you're not mentally prepared. I would realise again that I have cancer and it's a heartbreak," she says.

But Luk was determined to pull herself together.

"When you're pregnant, your hormones are already all over the place. If I thought too much about it and started crying, I felt that would hurt the baby."

When tears started to flow, she would try to keep it in check by writing letters to her family and her unborn child. The operation was something of a milestone - it was conducted with Luk lying on her side the whole time because of her baby bump. And because the tumour was quite big, doctors had to remove more of the surrounding tissue to ensure they got all the cancer, and she had to have her whole back reconstructed.

Having established in the crucial 48 hours after the operation that her baby had not been affected, Luk and her husband Jason Lee faced another challenge: deciding when to deliver their child. The earlier Luk could give birth the earlier she could have radiotherapy and undergo tests to see if the cancer had spread. But that would mean cutting short the baby's development.

As his wife was severely stressed by her illness, Lee did most of the reading up on her condition and liaised with the oncologist.

Luckily the cancer turned out to be less aggressive than they had thought and she carried their child to full-term. Two weeks after delivery, Luk began six weeks of radiotherapy.

She's grateful her family was around to help when she left home every day for treatment. But at the same time she became frustrated that she couldn't care for her newborn daughter, Kaylen, herself and couldn't have the time to learn.

A bout of post-partum blues didn't help. But in hindsight, she believes being forced to leave the house for treatment and hand over the care of her baby has turned out to be beneficial.

"If you're exhausted, you really can't have the energy to enjoy being with your child," says Luk. "Women feel very guilty [about leaving their child behind] because you've been carrying the baby for months and you feel so responsible for everything that will happen to the baby. No matter how hands-off you want to be, as a mother you'll still feel very attached.

"It's hard not to feel guilty, but it's also not healthy to put that much pressure on yourself. It does help to leave the house once in a while. Whatever it is, if it's working, if it's doing sports, or even going out to see your friends, people should be keen on having this time for themselves to balance everything."

It’s unfortunate that [cancer] happened, but, at the same time, I have to be thankful that it taught me a lot of things
Vivian Luk

That six weeks has better prepared her to return to her bespoke bridal gown service, which has dressed several high society brides including Cathy Chui Chi-kei and Guo Jingjing. Now back at the atelier full time, Luk, who previously worked for US designer Vera Wang, is testing a new, healthier way of running her business. She also started a project to create a limited run of baby dresses, named Kaylen after her five-month-old daughter, and a shortened version of her Seafan bridal gown. The idea, which came to her while in hospital, is to donate all the proceeds to a local cancer charity, although Luk has yet to decide which organisation should benefit.

Like many women, Luk says giving birth has been one of the most incredible experiences in her life.

"It's unfortunate that [cancer] happened, but, at the same time, I have to be thankful that it taught me a lot of things," she says.

Luk has realised she cannot control every aspect of her life.

"Before, I would plan every little thing as long as I can. I went into hospital thinking it was a very simple operation. I still had all my clients [waiting] for me to get back to finish their gowns. I wasn't going to stop working until one week before [labour]. But after this unexpected experience, I have become a much calmer person."

She has learned to just go with the flow, she says. As long as she has put in the effort, Luk is no longer as concerned about what the result might be.

It's also the approach she now takes with being a mother: instead of planning everything and feeling frazzled when the outcome doesn't quite meet expectations, she is more grateful with what came about naturally.

"When things used to be a certain way, I would feel it could be better. Now, I feel whatever [the problem] is, it could always be worse. If it's something that you can survive, it'll make you stronger," Luk says.

Luk says she shared her story because she wanted other cancer sufferers to feel comforted, just as she had been when a friend forwarded an article by someone who was also diagnosed with cancer while she was pregnant.

The woman wrote that she had faith that she would pull through, and was trying to look forward to what was positive.

"Just reading that there's someone else [like me] out there made me think if she could do it, I could, too," Luk says. "Hopefully, with this article, anyone going through [a similar ordeal] will also not feel so alone."