Most people would say that 2020 was a difficult year. For Minh Chau Le Thi, it was particularly gruelling. The 49-year-old spent ten months separated from family, unable to return to her home in Fiji, while she received specialised treatment for cancer in Sydney.
Despite her challenges, Minh Chau’s positive outlook has left a lasting impression on the CanCare Navigator team. We caught up with Minh Chau to learn more about her story.
From Viet Nam to Singapore then Suva/Fiji to Sydney/Australia … Minh Chau’s journey to receive treatment in Australia is an example of the marvel of the extraordinary global network of physicians and surgeons looking after the interests of people living with cancer.
Originally from Saigon, Viet Nam, Minh Chau was first diagnosed with lung cancer in 2015. At the time, she was living in Hanoi with her husband and their two children (now aged 16 and 13) and working as an Education Specialist with UNICEF.
Minh Chau went through 8 month treatment starting with chemotherapy, then surgery to remove a tumour in her lung, followed by radiation treatment. However, she says that a late diagnosis and negative perceptions around cancer meant her early experience of cancer management was poor.
“Treatment for cancer is done differently in different contexts. In Viet Nam, I experienced very negative perspectives about cancer. It wasn’t until I travelled to Singapore for a second opinion followed by my treatment there that I learned the importance of an individualised approach and an enabling treatment environment,” says Minh Chau.
For the following three years, Minh Chau and her medical team continued to monitor and manage her health through medication to control her recurrence one year after the intensive treatment in 2015. She was generally well and able to continue her full life including her work with UNICEF and spend time on and off with her extended family who all still live in Saigon.
As an Education Specialist with UNICEF, Minh Chau’s work is focused on supporting quality education systems for children, particularly disadvantaged children (e.g. children with disabilities, migrant children and those affected by disasters and climate change and out-of-school children). She works with partner organisations to influence education policy and practice and build capacity for compliance with international treaties.
In 2018, Minh Chau and her family moved to Fiji as she took up international assignment to engage more directly on education issues with Pacific Island countries. It was a professional dream come true.
With the family settled in Fiji and work going well, in the first half of 2019 Minh Chau experienced fluctuations in her health and attended a routine check with her medical team in Singapore where monitoring revealed new tumour sites in the brain. She went through surgery for removal of the tumour and was then on medication for further controlling her metastatic lung cancer.
Under advice from her medical team, Minh Chau was referred to a medical oncologist specialised in lung who took on her care. A key consideration for this was to shorten the travel time from Fiji. With the help of her doctors both in Singapore and Sydney, she was able to transfer her specialist care to St George Private Hospital from mid 2019. She maintained stability and continued with periodic review every 2-3 months.
She travelled to Sydney in March 2020 for her periodic review. As we know, the rest of 2020 did not go as planned. For the world or Minh Chau. International border closures made it very difficult to her to travel to Australia in May 2021 and that also meant that any plans Minh Chau had to return home following the treatment was no longer possible.
“Life is what is received whether you expect it or not. It’s hard being away from family and the work I love so much but the good thing is my office still allows me to work remotely, giving me a good sense of purpose and normalcy despite so much uncertainty. Besides, I focus my effort on what makes me feel good – praying and meditation, rest and exercise, deep breathing, doing some yoga, going for a walk – and surrounding myself with positive people,” says Minh Chau.
In the end, Minh Chau spent eight months alone in Sydney while undergoing a few periodic review, radiation treatment and one brain surgery.
While in Sydney, she continued working remotely for UNICEF, showing dedication and determination that greatly impressed her CanCare Navigator Sarah.
After months with different rounds of treatments, international border closures, flight cancellations and travel delays, Minh Chau finally received the green light to return home in Fiji in December 2020. After mandatory quarantine, she managed to reach home just before Christmas. According to Minh Chau, the timing was perfect after all the trials of a challenging year.
In the six years since her initial diagnosis, Minh Chau has faced many challenges. When asked how she copes with setbacks, Minh Chau is typically upbeat.
“Everybody’s experience with cancer is different. But when I focus on feeling in control, even when I have to be away for treatment or I’m waiting for results or when there is a lot of uncertainty, it makes things easier to manage.
“I often feel that there is so much goodness around which is spirit-lifting and empowering such as care from the family, access to treatment and caring doctors and nursing teams, having a job to do and a cause to serve, office colleagues, church community, company and support of friends, etc. Most importantly, the peace from prayers and the belief that God takes care of me regardless of what the situation I am facing is so powerful for me to keep going. I think focusing too much on the negativity easily takes away one’s sense of control and hope. As much as possible, I have tried to avoid negative thoughts and even negative people”.
“I don’t waste time trying to convince other people that I’m ok. I am ok. I feel like I still live a full life even with cancer. Except for remembering my daily medication and my periodic review/monitoring every 2-3 months, I don’t need to be reminded all the time that I have cancer. Life is too short and I prefer to live my life with purpose.”
“Though I have accepted that people are different, some rather made up their mind that once you have cancer, you are this, or that… nothing more while many others still believe in you and your ability to cope with adversity and come to your help where they can.”
We certainly agree with you Minh Chau. Thank you for sharing your messages of hope and positivity with our CanCare patients and volunteers.