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Pioneering doctor offers hope

Published on Friday, 26 Nov 2010
Polly Cheung
Founder, Breast And Endocrine Surgery Centre
Photo: Jonathan Wong

It's probably fair to say Dr Polly Cheung Suk-yee has given many Hong Kong women a sense of dignity. After finishing her medical studies at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) in 1978, she was firmly on track to make history as Hong Kong's breast surgery pioneer.

After becoming an academic surgeon and then completing her surgical training at HKU, Cheung introduced post-mastectomy reconstruction to the city in 1983. Following one year of training at the University of Michigan, she came back as a practising surgeon and offered breast-conserving surgery in 1987. The technique offered women hope, at a time when breast lumps - good or bad - were commonly removed.

She set up Hong Kong's first breast-screening centre at Kwong Wah Hospital in 1990, and her own clinic a year later.

Her professional links with the Hong Kong Sanatorium and Hospital, which started in 1995 with her designation as honorary consultant in breast and general surgery, saw her set up the city's first private breast-care centre and multi-disciplinary breast team care for patients.

At Central's Breast and Endocrine Surgery Centre, which she established in 2007, Cheung describes how she juggles the roles of surgeon, surgical trainer, health educator, a leader among her global peers, wife and a mother of two sons. "My career and my interest are the same, so I don't think work is hard," Cheung says. "It's harder for my family, especially during university. I spent a lot of time at university and spent less time with my children. This is my only regret."

Cheung says an understanding husband, careful family planning and a live-in mother-in-law helped her through her professional journey. "I used to drive my children to school before I went to work and talk with them during those couple of minutes," Cheung says. "The only thing I couldn't do was to pick them up - you know kids have a lot [of stories] to share after school. My kids would tell their stories to my mother-in-law instead. That's what I missed." 

Cheung meets 30 to 40 patients a day in her Hong Kong clinic, so she usually has a lunchbox at the clinic to save time. She alternates her clinic days with full-days at Happy Valley's Hong Kong Sanatorium, among other hospitals to which she can get her patients admitted.

Cheung says every day is a challenge. "Each case is different. We have to balance so many factors. Sometimes it's hard to find the right way to treat it."

Cheung and the breast cancer foundation have been advocating city-wide government-initiated mammogram screening programmes, given that Hong Kong ranks second only to Singapore in terms of breast cancer incidence in Asia. "Some non-governmental organisations in Hong Kong have started screening centres already," she says. "But that's not enough."

Cheung plays down her achievements. "When I first started the foundation, many thought I did it to benefit my private practice or for fame. But I didn't think that way. I do it not for myself, but to benefit others."

Roll call

  • Cheung does tai chi each Sunday for two hours to keep her mind and body healthy
  • She founded the HK Breast Cancer Foundation in 2005 with cancer survivors, colleagues and friends
  • In the same year, she became honorary associate professor of surgery at HKU

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