Hong Kong Cancer Fund's Sally and Robert Lo take on 'the Big C'

The Hong Kong Cancer Fund's Sally and Robert Lo talk to Angharad Hampshire about their 28-year mission to ensure no-one faces the disease alone, and their own battle with 'the Big C'

Robert and Sally Lo. Portrait: Jonathan Wong. Pictures: Robert and Sally Lo; Hong Kong Cancer Foundation; SCMP

Sally Lo has lived with cancer for nearly 30 years.

She has not been afflicted by "the big C" herself but, as founder of the Hong Kong Cancer Fund, she has been surrounded by the disease through her work and, recently, it struck closer to home, when her husband of more than 40 years, Robert Lo Kai-leung, had to wage his own battle.

"I have lost a lot of friends over the years," Sally says. "You become close to people and then lose them, which is, of course, very difficult. But, sharing the last chapter of someone's life is an enormous privilege. And being able to make a difference to someone is so rewarding."

In the mid-1980s, one of Sally's best friends, a young mother of three, died of stomach cancer. At the time "the C word" was taboo in Hong Kong and there was no information or support available. The experience spurred Sally to action and, in the 28 years since she started the organisation, which provides all its services for free, Sally has devoted the best part of her life to helping others overcome and live with cancer.

I meet the Los at the Cancer Fund's CancerLink Centre, in Central. The muted-beige colour scheme, cosy armchairs, library and peaceful side rooms have the feeling of a relaxed cafe or hotel lobby. Clinical it is not.

Dressed comfortably in cashmere and corduroy, the couple exude warmth. Silver-haired, yet seeming remarkably young for their years, they wear the mantle of a life spent dealing with deadly diseases lightly. Robert, the fund's co-chairman, is calm, affable and avuncular. Sally's light-hearted sparkle belies the steely determination and focus that has been necessary to build the group into what it is today.

The Cancer Fund started in 1987 in a doctor's dining room as a small support group. Today, it is the city's largest cancer support organisation, with centres in every public hospital that has an oncology department, three support centres in the community, a home visit programme, services that cover all age groups and extend to all those affected by cancer, including family members and carers. There are now 21,000 users, more than 100 full- and part-time staff and 600 volunteers.

Its purpose is to ensure "no one faces cancer alone".

Robert and Sally at their wedding, in London, in 1968.

long way, both metaphorically and geographically, from the upper class family in London into which she was born. Her early years were, by all accounts, comfortable. However, she broke from the norm in her 20s, by marrying a Hong Kong Chinese man, a rare occurrence at the time.

Robert was born into an equally well-off family. His grandfather, Lo Yuk-tong, was an immigrant from Guangdong province. Exactly how has been lost to history, but he gained a place at Queen's College, the first public secondary school in Hong Kong.

Grandfather Lo learnt English, which enabled him to get a job with trading company Sassoon. In time, he became comprador of British colonial lender the Mercantile Bank, which would be acquired by the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation in the 1960s. In those days, companies needed a native manager through whom all local business transactions passed.

"We're not talking small clients here," says Sally. "We're talking aviation, manufacturers of refrigeration and much more."

A young Li Ka-shing, who was then manufacturing plastic flowers, was one of the family's clients.

By the time Sally and Robert met, in the 60s, the Los had acquired great wealth and lived in a family mansion on the site the Hopewell Centre now occupies in Wan Chai.

Robert, like many well-heeled Hongkongers of that era, was educated in Britain, first at boarding school then university. He won't reveal the exact institutions as the couple "don't want to be pigeon-holed", however, he concedes modestly that, "I went to all the right places".

When Robert was 25, he was working in London as an accountant, and Sally, then 20, was doing an apprenticeship in gemology. Robert's best friend had a crush on Sally. The crush was unreciprocated but Sally's friendship with the young Hongkonger grew.

"He was a spare man at my dinner parties and I was a spare girl at his," Sally reminisces fondly.

Robert and Sally's children (from left) Emma, Siu-fan, Melissa and Siu-mei.

London's "swinging 60s" were a far cry from Hong Kong at that time. The leftist riots of 1967 brought political instability and, as the disturbances increased, business withdrew from the territory. Robert was called back to help manage the family affairs. By now, it was Robert's father, Lo Hing-kwong, who was acting as comprador. The scope for great wealth that came with the job was tempered with great risk, as the comprador had to guarantee his clients personally. As loan after loan went bad, the Lo family had to sell assets to make good the debts.

The turbulence and separation from Sally dominated Robert's mind and he became set on marriage, inviting her out to visit in the summer of 1967.

"My family was not at all happy about me coming here," says Sally. "The British press was full of information about the riots. The whole of the Hong Kong waterfront was covered in Mao Zedong red banners, and the British Army was on alert at the border. There was a lot of disruption caused by agitators who put explosives in tiny tea chests. Many of the police lost limbs trying to remove them. My family asked me what on earth I was thinking but I promised them it would be fine and off I went."

Sally's flight to Hong Kong went via Rome, Athens, Delhi and Bangkok.

"I had a hat box on my knee. Those were the days when you had to have a hat wherever you went, or at least that's what I thought."

She arrived in a city under curfew but her spirits were not dampened: "Life in those days was quite incredible. Everything was in grand style. We'd take the launch out, find a beach, put tables and chairs on it and have dinner parties. There was a 10 o'clock curfew but we didn't take it terribly seriously. If we came in late from a boating party, we'd swim in. It was great fun."

It wasn't all plain sailing, though.

"The stock market plunged," says Robert. "Property prices plummeted. Confidence dropped through the floor and it was all a bit harrowing. We had to make good all the loans. Luckily, we had sufficient assets."

On the second day of Sally's visit, Robert proposed on South Bay Beach. She told him she "wasn't quite ready yet" and asked him to wait. Sally returned to London single but a few months later received a letter of proposal. They were married in London in 1968 then returned to set up home in Hong Kong.

Robert's family mansion, which occupied the site where the Hopewell Centre stands, in Wan Chai.

"I busied myself being a young housewife," says Sally. "One day, I was cleaning a bath and my mother-in-law, Lucy Lo Tam Lai-ming, whom I am very close to, stopped me and told me I must go out and serve the community. There is an extremely strong tradition of philanthropy in the Lo family and, now, it was my turn. So, I volunteered full-time at the Duchess of Kent Children's Hospital, at Sandy Bay."

Sally also helped to start Treats, a charity that assisted mainland refugees who had swum the 4km stretch to Hong Kong across Deep Bay and Mirs Bay, evading sharks and PLA bullets, from the tiny fishing villages of Shenzhen and Dapeng.

Sally and Robert had two daughters, Emma and Melissa, and fostered two more, Siu-mei and Siu-fan. Emma and Melissa attended a nursery school in Shek O run by a woman called Nickie Thomas. Thomas and Sally became friends.

In 1985, Thomas was diagnosed with stomach cancer and given three months to live. She returned to Britain for treatment with her three small children. Sally went back to be with her and, along with her twin sister, Jilly, and friends, she nursed Thomas through her final months and she died in 1986.

"At the time, cancer was very much taboo in Hong Kong," says Sally. "There was no support or information. We were totally and utterly in the dark. It was an extremely difficult time for me because I lost a good friend. However, things in life have come to me for a reason. Within two or three weeks of being back in Hong Kong, I went to a dinner where I was asked if I would help with an oncology conference at Chinese University. In that same week, I was also called to ask if I'd start a cancer support group."

The conference was a success and, at the end, HK$30,000 was left in the kitty. Sally suggested that the money be put into a fund to provide support and information, and the Hong Kong Cancer Fund was born.

"I started off with a support group, CanSurvive, cancer booklets and an office in a doctor's dining room in Blue Pool Road. It all escalated very quickly. I was asked by Dr Jonathan Sham Shun-tong, a well-known oncologist, what I'd do if I were offered space in a public hospital. This was the turning point, because you can have all the information booklets in the world but you need to get to the patients at the point of diagnosis."

The first Cancer Patient Resource Centre opened at the Queen Mary Hospital, in Pok Fu Lam, in 1992. Two years later, two more centres followed, at the Tuen Mun and Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern hospitals.

"Today, it's a comprehensive network. We are in every public hospital with an oncology department, providing information and counselling. We also run a hotline, which is manned by a team of oncology professionals, including social workers and nurses. Our trained volunteers, all of whom have experienced cancer personally or through a family member, give us extra support. We also run eye-catching educational campaigns and give immediate relief to our clients with our hardship funds."

Sally with Princess Diana at the Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern Hospital, in 1995.

Realising the importance of a presence in the community to provide support both during and after treatment, the Cancer Fund has opened three CancerLink Support Centres, with another, in Kwai Fong, in the pipeline. Anyone can walk into these centres to ask for free help and advice. Professional staff evaluate cases, assess anxiety levels and then work out a plan of action.

"When we started, we just served the client," says Sally. "Now we serve the whole family and all our services are age specific. Wong Tai Sin, our largest centre, sees 150 or more people a day. People come to our centres for nursing consultations, counselling and need-specific programmes such as 'You Can', for young adults, and 'Rainbow Club', for children affected by parents having cancer. The fastest growing demand is for our Wellness stream. We offer yoga, breathing classes, meditation and hands-on healing to 1,500 clients a week through 55 therapists, and all manner of other therapeutic activities, from art, music and dance to rock climbing. We even do magic - that's a lot of fun."

The Cancer Fund supports clients through the entire cancer journey, in the hospital setting, in the community and with home care.

One of the organisation's greatest achievements was to advocate cervical screening for all women in Hong Kong, which the government implemented in 2003.

"We opened our own cervical screening clinic at the Prince of Wales Hospital in 1995," says Sally. "Closing that clinic, because the government introduced screening, is possibly one of the most successful things we have done."

Sally tells the story of a man who came through her doors in the early days. His young wife had been diagnosed with tongue cancer. Her prognosis was good but she needed to have part of her tongue removed and reconstructed, which would result in a temporary loss of speech. The couple's two sons, aged seven and nine, had taken the news very badly. As a result, the woman was refusing treatment and her husband was devastated.

"I know this sounds crazy but I often ask for the strength to problem-solve for the family or individual I am dealing with. In this case, I remembered that I had met a reiki teacher the week before. I suggested that they go, as a family, to the reiki teacher to try some hands-on healing. My feeling was that the boys might have a change of heart if they felt they were part of the healing process."

Six months later, the same man appeared at Sally's door beaming and bearing a bunch of flowers. He told her that all four of them had taken the reiki course and had done the hands-on healing twice a day. His wife had agreed to the operation, chemotherapy and speech training and had made a full recovery, even going back to work. Their sons had felt involved in the process and responsible for their mother's healing.

"I looked up to the sky and said, 'Thank you, Nickie!' I still sometimes stop to tell her, 'I hear you. I'm on the job.'"

Sally (left) with David Tang, a member of the Cancer Fund, and Jennifer Murray, at a press briefing in 1990.

with cancer proved to be one of the most challenging. This time last year, Sally and Robert went on holiday. Robert returned with a cough and went to see their GP. The doctor examined him and suggested he stay overnight for a scan. The results showed non-Hodgkin lymphoma, cancer of the lymphatic system.

"So the roller-coaster ride started," says Sally. "Although we are entirely familiar with the process, it's not the same when you find yourself on the other side of the fence."

Robert was treated with target therapy and chemotherapy for six months.

"You feel like you are losing control of your life and that is the hardest thing to overcome," says Robert. "You have no idea what's going to happen to you next. The reassurance and support I received from the team made such a difference."

Robert suffered blackouts and was rushed to hospital seven times in nine months. He lost an incredible amount of weight.

"My body is really in bad shape," he says. "But the breathing sessions and gentle yoga are building my strength."

Sally speaks of the experience with admirable optimism: "It wasn't all bad. I have learnt a lot from being on the other side of the fence. This experience has helped me to realise how much courage people find when dealing with cancer. The inner strength people find is incredible. In-cred-i-ble. I also immediately employed two more dieticians as we realised, through our own experience, the importance of nutrition.

"The good news is that, today, cancer is treatable," she smiles. Robert's treatment is now complete and he is cancer-free. "Modern medicine is wonderful. Our challenge now is more and more survivors needing our help. The demand for our services is growing the whole time."

The Cancer Fund operates entirely from donations.

"We need HK$80 million a year to fund our free services. We have a few extremely generous individuals, foundations and corporate long-term partners, like Louis Vuitton, all of which we value immensely. We also run events but they require a lot of time and energy. Quite honestly, it's the man in the street who gives HK$100 a month that pays for a large percentage of our running costs. For this, I am eternally grateful."

As Sally approaches a big-0 birthday, has she got plans to put her hat back in the hat box?

"No," she says, firmly. "When I can't problem-solve and I can't make a difference any more then I'll retire. The key thing is it's a team effort and my team is fantastic. This might sound strange but when I want something badly enough it happens. When I want to find my replacement, they will turn up. Until then, my aim is to live every day with quality and to make a difference."


This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Life support