Health and wellness

Friend’s shaved head helps Hong Kong cancer sufferer in last-ditch quest for costly therapy

Facing expensive immunotherapy for a rare disorder which has spread to her brain, Mandy Yau’s crowdfunding campaign has taken off after thousands of views of her friend having her long hair shaved off live on Facebook

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 December, 2017, 8:47am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 December, 2017, 8:46am

Sharon Mak Kwan-yeung was preparing to leave Hong Kong to study in America when she learned her close friend Mandy Yau Man-yi was in the fight of her life with cancer.

Yau, 21, has been grappling with the rare disorder alveolar soft part sarcoma for six years. She has all but exhausted the conventional treatment forms, having had operations, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Her last hope is costly immunotherapy.

Mak, now on a student exchange programme at American University in Washington, DC, helped Yau set up a campaign on the platform, to raise HK$352,000 (US$45,100).

That money will finance treatments and help with her living expenses, too, since Yau’s parents have given up their full-time jobs – her father was a chef, her mother a security guard – to help their daughter fight the illness.

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To highlight Yau’s plight and show solidarity for her friend who lost her hair after cancer treatments, Mak, 21, had her head shaved, live on Facebook. More than 47,000 people have viewed the video, which links to the fundraising page. Since the campaign was launched in mid-October, it has raised HK$241,350 – more than two-thirds of its target – with about two months left to go.

According to the Hong Kong Cancer Registry, in 2015 there were only 264 cases of bone and soft tissue cancer cases in the city. Alveolar soft part sarcoma is a rare soft tissue cancer that afflicts young people, usually starting with tumours in limbs, then spreading to other parts such as the lungs and brain.

When Yau spoke with the Post , her disease had spread to her brain and left her unable to move her left arm and leg.

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“Doctors said this [immunotherapy] is the last method that I can try,” says Yau. Since having a third round, she has regained the use of her limbs.

Immunotherapy harnesses the immune system to fight cancer cells but it’s costly, and Yau’s crowd-funding effort reflects the typical struggles Hong Kong cancer patients face to finance their health care.

“People care, I didn’t expect the campaign would get this far because the target goal was such a huge amount,” Mak says. Most of the 300-plus backers are strangers.

Yau is already grateful. “I didn’t expect that many people would donate money to me,” she says. “I think [immunotherapy] is helping because now I’m walking and able to do things normal people do.”

She adds it takes time for the treatment to work. Recent scans show her 3cm brain tumour has remained unchanged, and she hopes more trials will shrink the mass.

“I feel really lucky and really thankful to those that have helped me,” Yau said. “Doctors say this is my last hope, so I’m giving it a go. I have to do it, I have no choice.”