Ms. Li

Burden of Drugs

“Here’s what I wake up to every day: a dose of drugs that costs HK$400 a day – it’s just too hard to swallow,” said 3-time relapse breast cancer patient Ms. Li, who is receiving two different targeted therapy drugs to keep her condition in check. 

“The hefty price is more than I can bear! How can I possibly keep dumping that onto my kids? They have their own family and expenses to cover. I figure, maybe I should just stop the medication when we run out of money,” she ponders.

Back in 2009 when the doctor offered her the option of targeted therapy, the high cost deterred her from trying it. She subsequently learned of the Hospital Authority’s Samaritan Fund, but its family income limit of HK$300,000 meant Ms Li would not qualify for the fund since her daughter had just managed to save a decent lump sum for her wedding. There was also the option of applying for Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA), but Ms. Li held back because of her kids. 


“Although my kids don’t make a lot of money, I just couldn’t have them sign the ‘loser paper’ admitting that what they earn can’t support their parents. I can’t accept it.”


Hope for more drug financial assistance

Ms. Li eventually spent more than HK$100,000 for the targeted therapy injection, only to get less-than-satisfactory results, not to mention the spread of cancer cells to her lungs. When the doctor recommended her to try targeted therapy drugs, at a cost of HK$400 for five tablets a day, timely relief finally came for her with the Hong Kong Breast Cancer Foundation’s launch of the Breast Cancer Drug Financial Assistance Programme. Applying for the programme with her doctor’s referral, Ms. Li had half of the cost of her drugs covered. She hoped to see more support from the Government and charities for breast cancer patients who share her plight of being financially constrained but are not CSSA recipients.

All along, Ms. Li has been receiving treatment in public hospitals.


"I've been there, done that – having received 25 sessions of electrotherapy, followed by chemotherapy after surgery in 2005; then the relapse in 2007 resulted in 10 electrotherapy sessions and 14 targeted therapy injections."  What’s beyond calculation is Ms. Li’s physical, emotion and financial anguish and burden.


Long live the family bond

Ms. Li’s breast cancer story begins more than 14 years ago when she felt a lump on her left breast during a shower. She was then diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer, at the age of 45. She underwent a mastectomy and in a month was back in her job as a restaurant runner.

In 2005, some bleeding cysts on her operated breast sent her to the emergency unit and, in turn, back to Queen Elizabeth Hospital where she learnt that breast cancer had returned. After a second surgery, supplemented by radiotherapy and chemotherapy, she heard the doctor’s words, “that should clear up everything and give you another 10 years at least.” 

To her surprise and dismay, she was only clear for two years before being hit by yet another relapse.


“By then the pain on my chest got so bad that I went into emergency, only to discover that the cancer has spread from the breast to the bones,” says Ms. Li.


Diagnosed with HER2 positive, she received 14 injections of targeted therapy, to no avail. Worse still, the tumour moved into the neck, causing her collarbone to protrude, along with another lump she felt on the right breast, and a numbing pain in the arms that would hardly let her stretch.

“That was literally the most painful month in my life, when I almost got to the point of wanting to end it all by jumping off a building or burning charcoal,” she recalled.  She has her family and friends to thank for eventually lifting her spirits and quashing her suicidal thoughts.  “For one thing, I’ve learnt to grab the ‘special pass’ (to see the doctor before the appointed date). I was saved by thinking about my yet-to-be-married daughter, my two cute little grandchildren, and the fact that I’m not that old yet,” reflects Ms. Li.

When it comes to her interactions, not everyone was so kind or supportive. She recalled how one neighbour changed from greeting her warmly to giving her the cold shoulder after learning about Ms. Li’s illness, though she knew all too well that “being sick doesn’t make me a sinner.”


Working yourself to the bone - for what?


Life for Ms. Li has taken many turns, dating as far back as 1989 when she got married and moved from Mainland China to Hong Kong. With a husband who was becoming senile, she was left her with the burden of raising their family of five children. Her day would start at 5am, pushing a dim sum trolley at the Chinese restaurant until 11am. Without any break she would pick up another 12-hour shift at the same restaurant as a food runner, literally working 365 days a year. For quite a while, she went even further by taking up yet another late-night shift to sell restaurant snacks until 2am. To save the HK$12 taxi fare, she walked all the way home after work.

“Now that I look back, I feel so stupid and so strongly that it’s probably such a stressful life, with all that kitchen smoke, that got me so sick,” she said.

With 14 years of treatment behind her, gone are all her hard-earned savings from working all her life. Worse still, her children are now bearing the burden of the cost of her illness.

However, thanks to her optimistic outlook and the support of her daughter, Ms. Li has stayed strong and chosen not to give up hope. She is relieved and glad that the six months of targeted therapy drugs have reduced the pain in her bones and reduced the tumour size too.