Award-winning Nguyen Thi Khanh Thuong's journey as a cancer crusader began when she herself was diagnosed with breast cancer weeks before her wedding on Vietnamese Women's Day last year. She tells her inspirational tale of fighting the deadly disease and her future fundraising plans.
by Lan Dung
Inner Sanctum: How has the knowledge gained from working with cancer charities helped you fight against breast cancer?
Actually, I did not know much about cancer during my time with charities. I took part in the events as a team leader to support the patients mentally and physically.
At that time, I only thought of cancer and breast cancer in a particular way. I thought it was difficult to cure, painful and required treatment for a long period of time, with the patient eventually passing away. However, after I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I realized that this was not true.
Lots of people are frightened when they are diagnosed with cancer. If a person says that one of her family members has cancer, people around them will often feel sorry for them. However, when being asked about what cancer actually is, no one can give a right answer.
Patients need to be encouraged to be mentally strong. They need money and they need good healthcare. When doctors told me I had cancer, I thought that I would only live for a few more months or years. Afterwards, I started to read up on cancer to inform my decisions on what medicine I would take and what secondary reactions I would have.
The more I understood about the disease, the more confident I was.
I realised that information was very important to patients. I can recall what one cancer patient said, "Cancer is a dangerous rival for our bodies. If you don't have an understanding of the disease, you cannot beat it or live with it."
Inner Sanctum: Was this your reason for establishing the Breast Cancer Network Viet Nam?
Exactly. I had my own perceptions about how important information was. I was lucky to be able to read documents and research papers in English; to be treated in Australia with good medical care and to be supported by my family, friends and colleagues.
However, I was still in a panic and I was desperate.
Women in remote areas, fall into far worse situations. They don't have access to the internet, they can't meet with specialized doctors, they can't afford treatment and they receive little support from their families.
I believed that reading guide books or doing research could help other women with cancer, as it had helped me. This would help them, help the community and it would add more strength for me to suffer through the treatment of the disease.
Inner Sanctum: What are the goals of the organisation and what has it achieved?
The network went public on March 3 with two missions. First, it aims at impoving the rate of early detection of breast cancer. In June, we started organizing mini-workshops for women with high breast cancer risk and those women who were interested in learning about it. At the event, specialized doctors equip them with basic information on the disease and patients; including those who are undergoing treatment or have recovered, share their stories to help them understand breast cancer and dismantle scary myths about the disease.
The workshops raise awareness of cancer in the community and help people detect the disease in their own homes. We cannot touch our brains or lungs to check for lumps. However, we can check our breasts monthly and see when there is rough skin or when a lump appears or when liquid is leaking from the nipples or any other abnormal symptoms.
Early diagnosis will help patients pay less money and not take much time in treatment. Investment in medical prevention is not as expensive as that in medical treatment.
We hold Pink Ribbon Day annually to fundraise and raise awareness with state agencies and organizations working in the public health sector.
Our volunteers instruct patients after operations to do physiotherapy and functional recovery in their homes (if they live in Ha Noi) or send instructional DVDs to them. In the Vietnamese medical system, patients are only treated and then sent on their way. There is a need for post-operative care to help women return to full health and enhance their physical and mental strength after treatment.
Inner Sanctum: You have met lots of patients, so in your opinion, what difficulties have patients faced in their battle against cancer? How can they overcome them?
I think their biggest difficulty is that they cannot cover medical expenses to get the best health care, even though health insurance can pay 80 per cent of the cost. They simply cannot afford hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese dong every month to get treatment because of their low income. Even after the expense for the treatment, patients pay for travel from their hometowns to Ha Noi, as well as for accommodation and food during treatment.
The other difficulty is the time patients can spend with their doctors to help them understand their disease. The doctors have to take care for many patients and the number of cancer-specialist doctors is small and they are mainly based in Ha Noi, HCM City or Da Nang City.
I believe that information is a simple self-help tool for patients to treat themselves at home.This helps to give the patients confidence and understanding and helps to lessen the burden on the doctors.
Inner Sanctum: What do you plan to do next?
I became weak after two operations in Australia and quit my teaching job at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in September. My Cancer Antigen 15-3 [showed using a blood test to monitor advanced breast cancer patients and their response to treatments] increased to 600, double greater the alarming index.
I will change my disease treatment and use chemotherapy. After the chemotherapy, Iplan to have a double mastectomy.
Although cancer cells have so far appeared in my left breast, I still want to remove both breasts because it is easy to spread to the right one. The mastectomy will also help me live longer.
Treatment in Australia can take more than one year, but it does not mean that I won't take part in the network's activities.
We will still run the mini workshops and help patients with their recovery after operations. We also plan to offer psychological support for patients when they receive their diagnosis and are undergoing treatment.
We will also make fake breasts and sell them to patients for cheap prices.
I will continue managing our official website [at www.bcnv.org.vn]. At the moment, I am still translating books on breast cancer. When they are finished, I will ask specialised doctors to review it and look for a publishing house and investors.
Our work so far has helped many women coming to grips and dealing with breast cancer. We have more work to do. We have to keep fighting. — VNS