Every year more than 2,300 new cases of the disease are diagnosed in Hong Kong, and after recovering from surgery each victim has to confront the trauma, both physical and mental.
Lau Sau-man flashed a victory sign as she told how she survived breast cancer. She'd traveled a hard road getting to where she could claim victory; first, there was the fear, then despair that morphed into anguish.
It was a bra specially designed for breast cancer patients that brought her back from a psychological abyss.
Breast cancer has been the number one cancer killer of women in Hong Kong since 1993. The number of cases tripled from 1,152 in 1993 to 3,868 in 2014. Since then, more than 2,300 new cases have been reported in the city per year, with six women diagnosed with the disease every day.
In 2014, 604 out of 3,868 patients－15.6 percent－died. However, as a result of medical advances, the survival rate of patients with early-stage breast cancer has reached about 80 percent in Hong Kong.
Lau, 53, learned there was trouble when a regular medical check exposed an abnormality in her left breast. A mammogram revealed the worst: She had cancer. That was two years ago.
An immediate mastectomy was ordered. Then came chemotherapy and electrotherapy. At first, the loss of her breast didn't bother Lau too much. "At that time, nothing was more important than my health," she said. "As a single mother of two, I told myself I needed to be alive for the sake of my sons."
A painful change
It took six months before the change began to weigh on her.
Back pain came first as the loss of her breast caused her body to overcompensate, throwing her off balance and straining the right side of her body.
Then, the feeling she wasn't a complete woman anymore started to gnaw at her. "Especially when I was with my girlfriends, I was aware of being different," she said. She was embarrassed by her friends' pitying looks and the quizzical stares of strangers. To feel more "normal", Lau stuffed the empty cup of her bra with a wad of cotton
She tried shopping at regular lingerie shops, but the bras irritated her skin. "My skin became very sensitive as a side effect of the radiation therapy. The material in bras for healthy women was too scratchy for me." She couldn't wear underwire bras after the surgery either, because they restricted her breathing and movement.
Before the change, Lau was on top of fashion and meticulous about her appearance. On special occasions she liked to wear something a little provocative.
Cancer left her with massive scars on her chest and, in the areas where electrotherapy was applied, darkened skin. "I didn't have the privilege of wearing off-the-shoulder dresses anymore. Styles that could expose my scars didn't belong to me. My choice became limited fashion-wise." Lau found people staring at her unusual skin color when she was swimming or trying on clothes. She had different skin tones on either side of her body.
Lau has been a widow since 2013. The time came when she wanted to start meeting men, build a new family and carry on with her life. But her subsequent mastectomy undermined her confidence and left her despairing of finding love again.
"I found lots of my male friends were very superficial. They would often judge and make casual remarks about a woman's looks. They would joke－something like, 'Look, her boobs are fake!'"
Remarks like that made Lau self-conscious and made her doubt the value of breast reconstruction surgery.
She found emotional support by meeting other breast cancer survivors at Maggie's Caring Centre at the city's Tuen Mun Hospital. Some related how their husbands had rejected them. "Some of their husbands had affairs. Some even divorced them," Lau said, shaking her head. At the center, she learned she was not alone.
One day, a newcomer arrived at Maggie's to give away free bras. She was Lonna Kwan, who runs a lingerie shop selling bras customized for women with breast cancer.
Each cancer survivor was measured to ensure she was given the right-size bra. The physical condition of each person was taken into account. "It's really comfortable, as if it is tailor-made for me. Not scratchy, not itchy to my sensitive skin," Lau said. She noticed that while wearing the bra, she no longer felt any muscle strain between her left underarm and her breast when she moved her arms.
Even more important was recovering her pride as a woman. "My breasts came back, my femininity returned, and so did my confidence," Lau recalled, pushing out her chest. "I can wear pretty clothes again, even low-cut dresses and shirts that were a no-no for me before, because the bras have lace and stylish elements to cover the surgery scars."
Lau described putting on her new bra as a motivating and life-changing experience. She thought back to the time several days before her surgery when a nurse showed her photos comparing women before and after mastectomy to brace the patient for the psychological shock of disfigurement. "When I saw the pictures, I broke down. I cried. I was helpless. I asked myself, 'Why, why me?'" Lau said, her voice quaking at the memory.
For a while she was even afraid of seeing her own reflection.
"I'd simply look away," she said. "But the toughest times have passed. I am back! Now I have no trouble looking in the mirror because the 'me' in the mirror is a normal healthy woman," she said, flashing an elated grin.