Work, as it does for many young Hong Kong professionals, once ruled Po Lee’s life – and it took a toll on her physical and mental health. Only after a life-threatening wake-up call did she see the need for some semblance of work-life balance. “Sometimes, I’d work overnight as I had urgent deadlines,” recalls the 30-something logistics industry professional using a pseudonym. Burned out, feeling suicidal and overwhelmed, Lee decided to seek help in December 2018. “But even though I had counselling … I still felt my mind was not well.” It wasn’t just her mental health that was poor. The lifestyle she led was not particularly healthy, active or social – she would eat fast food and, when working overnight, she would snack on less-than-nourishing instant noodles . When Lee was diagnosed with Stage 1C ovarian cancer in April 2019, she knew her priorities had to change. Lee had endured painful periods since she was young and often needed painkillers. Her doctors suspected she might have endometriosis – a condition in which tissue similar to the lining of the womb starts to grow in other places, such as the ovaries and Fallopian tubes. It is a risk factor for endometrioid carcinoma, the cancer that now affected her. She spoke with the Post about her journey at the Hong Kong Cancer Fund (HKCF) Women Support Centre in Central, where she benefits from its survivorship services. Lee has regular female health check-ups, including an annual ultrasound – a practice she has followed since she was 13. It was during a routine ultrasound last year that two cysts on each of her ovaries were discovered. They were removed, and post-surgery tests revealed one of those growths had cancerous cells. ‘Lucky to be here’: a Stage 4 ovarian cancer survivor’s tale Ovarian cancer is the sixth most common cancer in women in Hong Kong, and tends to hit patients in their 50s. The Hong Kong Cancer Registry recorded 651 cases in 2017, up from 598 a year earlier and 578 in 2015. Dr Tse Ka-yu, a clinical associate professor in the department of obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Hong Kong, says there are several factors that could explain the rise in incidence. “Total cancer cases in general are increasing as society is ageing,” Tse says. “Ovarian cancer tends to happen in peri- or post-menopausal women.” The disease is “a silent killer”, she stresses, as some patients don’t experience symptoms until the late stage . One of these symptoms may be bloating. In later stages, women may feel more tired than usual, experience a loss of appetite, weight loss, or a shift in bowel habits – such as visiting the loo often but not passing anything. “In general, if detected early, the five-year survival rate is around 80 to 90 per cent,” says Tse. However, no good screening exists for ovarian cancer, and there is a lack of evidence on the usefulness of ultrasounds and a CA 125 (a test which measures the amount of the protein cancer antigen 125 in your blood). One statement that impacted me was: ‘Other people’s feelings belong to others. We don’t have to bear all the feelings of others, we have to take care of our own feelings’ Po Lee After her diagnosis, Lee turned to free support services from the Hong Kong Cancer Fund, where the nutritional talks inspired her to revamp her diet. “I learned fried foods have some carcinogenic properties, as do processed foods. They told me to eat more vegetables,” she says. She learned vegetables packed with antioxidants help the body build a defence against the growth of cancer cells, the best including artichokes, kale, red cabbage, beans, beets and spinach. She also learned to choose healthier protein options, such as tofu and hormone-free chicken. Lee also exercises weekly, doing Zumba dance-move routines or core-strengthening Pilates workouts . Lee underwent a hysterectomy as part of her treatment, which triggered her menopause, before undergoing a course of chemotherapy. Her husband of five years assured her that it was all right that she wouldn’t be able to bear children, and that her life was more important. Her devout Christian family and church community also rallied around her. Her all-nighters at work are over, too. When Lee threatened to quit her job to focus on her health, her boss delegated some of her workload to others. She used to have trouble saying “no” to others out of a fear of leaving a bad impression. Not any more. Lee also joined the Recovery Action Plan, an eight-month group programme at the HKCF Women Support Centre to help survivors thrive in their post-cancer lives. One particular session, focused on commonly shared human rights and value statements, helped her vocalise her feelings. Sex after cancer: how one couple learned to be intimate again “One statement that impacted me was: ‘Other people’s feelings belong to others. We don’t have to bear all the feelings of others, we have to take care of our own feelings,’” she says. Lee now realises work is only one small part of life, and that taking up hobbies or learning something new can be far more rewarding. She urges women to get their annual check-ups and, for endometriosis sufferers in particular, an ultrasound. Tse stresses that while most cases of endometriosis do not result in cancer, it is considered a risk factor for two ovarian cancer types: endometrioid carcinoma and clear-cell carcinoma. “Some worry their [mass] will transform into cancer but the chance is not high. Still, the fact is it is associated with cancer,” she says. “If you find anything abnormal, consult a doctor as soon as possible,” she urges, warning women not to dismiss seemingly benign, yet persistent, symptoms. For more information on Hong Kong Cancer Fund’s services at its Women Support Centre, call 3667 3131 or visit Unit 5, Ground Floor, The Centre, 99 Queen’s Road Central, Hong Kong Island.