Cancer survivor, 21, back to running and hiking, and into yoga, as she celebrates beating lymphoma and plans how to help others overcome the disease

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Audrey Kwan was an active 20-year-old studying hotel management at the Chinese University of Hong Kong when, in June 2020, she noticed something odd on her neck.

“The mark was about 1mm in size, but I didn’t think it was too serious. I thought I just needed rest because I had been doing a lot of studying,” she says.

But in the following two weeks, the small bump ballooned, “from the size of a ping pong ball, then to a golf ball and then a tennis ball”.

Kwan was diagnosed with stage two lymphoma, a type of blood cancer that develops when white blood cells called lymphocytes grow out of control. Lymphocytes are part of the immune system, the body’s germ-fighting network.

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Kwan noticed a mark on her neck in 2020. In two weeks, it grew from the size of a ping pong ball to a golf ball and then a tennis ball. Photo: courtesy of Audrey Kwan

She immediately started targeted therapies as well as chemotherapy, six rounds that would last about five months, the treatment sending the once positive and active adrenaline junkie into a world of despair.

“My walls came crashing down,” says Kwan. “My bones felt like they were on fire and I was tired all the time but couldn’t sleep. I was vomiting and had no appetite, which was hard because I love food,” she says, adding her weight dropped 10kg. “At my lowest I was about 39kg.”

Her mental health also suffered, a situation made worse by restrictions on hospital visitations introduced during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Before my diagnosis I was so positive and active,” she says. To show just how energetic, she grabs her phone, scrolling through pictures of her skydiving in Britain, bungee jumping in Macau and surfing and hiking in Hong Kong.

“Before the pandemic I travelled a lot,” she says. Other holiday snaps show her in front of London Bridge, swimming in Cambodia and backpacking through Germany. “I also travelled alone in Australia,” she says. “The food in Australia was amazing – I ate so many oysters.

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‘Before my diagnosis I was so positive and active,’ says Kwan, pictured with a surfboard in Big Wave Bay, Hong Kong. Photo: courtesy of Audrey Kwan

“But lying in a hospital bed, sick and alone with nothing to do, hurt my mental state,” she says. “I would check my friends’ Instagrams and see how much fun they were having – camping and hiking. I cried every day.”

Today, Kwan is cancer-free and back to her healthy routine. This year she became an accredited Latin dance teacher. She was already accredited in mountaineering.

While hiking and long-distance running continue to be part of her life – her personal best is 10km in 43 minutes 34 seconds – she has also taken up yoga. “I always thought I couldn’t sit still long enough for yoga but I was wrong … it’s been amazing.”

She says her cancer ordeal hasn’t just made her stronger but has reshaped her future. Before her diagnosis, Kwan dreamed of travelling the world as a flight attendant. Now she wants to help other cancer patients, and inspire and support those who are going through treatment.

“Maybe I’ll work for an NGO or give TEDx talks,” she says. “God has a different plan for me. I also have a new title – ‘Audrey, cancer survivor’ – so I want to use it to inspire others,’’ she says. “Life is so short and you never know what will happen in the next second or next minute. You must do what makes you happy.”

On October 11, Kwan was guest speaker at the opening of an exhibition to raise public awareness about rare blood diseases.

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On October 11, Kwan was guest speaker at the opening of an exhibition to raise public awareness of rare blood diseases. Photo: courtesy of Hong Kong Blood Cancer Foundation

Organised by the Hong Kong Blood Cancer Foundation, the “Rare Blood Disease Educational Exhibition: How do blood cells get sick?”, being held at the Lee Theatre Plaza in Causeway Bay, runs until October 17.

“This exhibition is really meaningful as it will help people know more about cancer. In Hong Kong, and around the world, so many people don’t know what cancer really is. They have heard of tumours and know that your hair might fall out, but many don’t know exactly what it is, so this is important to help raise awareness,” Kwan says.

She is forever grateful for the support of family and friends. “My parents and all my family and friends supported me when I was in hospital. When I couldn’t sleep – even if it was midnight – they would answer my calls and we would FaceTime.”

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Kwan asked a photographer friend to take some images during her treatment. This photo struck a chord. Photo: courtesy of Audrey Kwan

Kwan also went through the questioning stage. “I kept asking, ‘Why me?’,” she says. “I didn’t drink or smoke, was active and healthy.” There was no history of cancer in her family (she has an older sister). But she tried hard to stay positive even in the darkest time. Netflix, YouTube, funny Instagram accounts and books helped, she says.

And while the cancer treatment was painful, Kwan wanted to document her treatment, and a photographer friend agreed to take some images. One picture – showing Kwan bald and wearing a floral oxygen mask – struck a chord.

“This photo was very meaningful and super powerful. I hope it encourages other people,” she says, adding she shared the image on social platforms and received much confidence-boosting support.

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