The Hong Kong Breast Cancer Foundation (HKBCF) was inaugurated on International Women’s Day – March 8, 2005. Since then, in its 12 years of operation, it has benefitted the lives of thousands of women in Hong Kong, be it through screening, counselling or other forms of support.
The need for such an organisation is borne out by the figures. Breast cancer is the number-one cancer affecting women in Hong Kong, and is third in terms of cancer-caused mortality among women in the territory. The stats make for grim reading – each day, 10 local women are diagnosed with the illness and one dies from it.
Yet despite the need, when the HKBCF was formed by surgical oncologist Dr Polly Cheung, the government was doing very little about the situation, certainly not in terms of education or early screening for the disease.
“When we formed the organisation, there was a feeling that there was an ‘oriental’ approach, in that there was the lack of mammography you see in the West – the early-detection mode there,” says Cheung over a coffee in the Chairman Suite in The Conrad Hong Kong. “The government said there was no local evidence to support mammography screening, but we felt that local data was very important to tell us if breast cancer is the same for oriental women and whether treatment and screening should be different [from the West]. That led us to form the Hong Kong Breast Cancer Registry, to look at all the diagnoses across the territory, from all centres. Currently we have 18,000 patients on it.”
Cheung is justly proud of the many achievements of the foundation. Its Breast Health Centre, in North Point, opened in 2011, and has provided screening services for (so far) more than 40,000 women, more than 16,000 of the screenings free of charge. Another key part of the centre’s work is its lymphoedema care service. People who’ve had lymph nodes removed as part of treatment tend to suffer from tissue swelling, which is both unsightly and uncomfortable. Yet, it can be managed.
As is so often the case, the charity’s work is not merely involved with early detection, it also deals with the many effects of the disease, whether physical or psychological. To this end, the organisation cannot stress highly enough the value of support work, much of it peer support from women who have been through the disease themselves.
“When someone with breast cancers talks to a survivor, they have the feeling that they understand, they can let go of some of the tension,” says Eliza Fok, HKBCF’s chairwoman. “At first they cry and barely smile. After one session of counselling, they are more relieved. We’ve helped more than 6,000 patients in this way.”
Different women have different requirements, and the organisation has groups for young women, older women and family members. There’s also one for English speakers.
Despite the success of the foundation, it soon became apparent that in some respects, the HKBCF was not helping the very people it needed to: lower-income women, the group most at risk. That risk has much to do with the fact that there are no symptoms of breast cancer in its early stages, yet that is exactly the time it needs to be caught. Catching it is a matter of various forms of examination.
“The low-income group in Hong Kong is mainly in Kowloon,” says Fok, herself a breast cancer survivor. “The people we need to reach are in places like Kwun Tong and Sham Shui Po; most women in these areas don’t go for mammograms, and when they’re diagnosed they are at later stages. This means it’s more difficult to treat, and there’s more cost. “Our studies in Hong Kong have found that while 80 percent of women over 40 know what mammography is, only 20 percent take action.”
Clearly there was the need for a centre away from Hong Kong Island. To this end, and after a great deal of work, the Hong Kong Breast Cancer Foundation Jockey Club Breast Health Centre (Kowloon) is due to open this summer in Ngau Chi Wan. Occupying two floors, the centre – the building of which was paid for by the Jockey Club – has a Breast Health Centre and a Breast Cancer Support Centre. Although the government gave the charity the land, and the Jockey Club is footing the bill for its screening programme for the first three years of operation, there’s still a long way to go in terms of funding.
Enter Camay Wong. A stalwart on the Hong Kong fund-raising scene, and like Fok, a breast cancer survivor, she was approached by the tireless Cheung just a few days after her own surgery. She soon realised that a major fund-raiser was called for in the form of a gala dinner.
“The day I had the operation was the beginning of the planning,” says Wong. “Dr Cheung called me less than a week after it and asked that we meet. I said, ‘No, you cut me open four days ago,’ and she said ‘You’re not sick; your brain is still working. I will come to your place.’ How can you say no to a doctor’s house call? The second time she came with Eliza and another lady from the centre – this group was very persuasive and I knew I had to do something for them.”
The Wings of Hope Gala Dinner on May 13 in the Grand Ballroom of The Conrad Hong Kong raised 9 million Hong Kong dollars toward the continuing funding of the new centre. Entertaining diners at the 40-table event are singer Frances Yip and star violinist Yao Jue, as well as a promised Il Divo-style performance by some of the illustrious gents attending the gathering. The presence of Yip at the event is especially pertinent as she, too, is a breast-cancer survivor.
But of course, it’s not only about the money. “Volunteers are so important,” says Fok. “I hope that when people see this article they’ll come to us to volunteer.”
Portrait by Until Chan