Roche Diagram magazine speaks to 41-year-old Dang Thi Phuong Nga from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. A primary school teacher, mother of two boys and cancer survivor talks about the emotional rollercoaster she went on when doctors told her about her abnormal Pap smear results and how she found inner strength to overcome her ordeal with cervical cancer. She hopes her inspirational story of surviving cancer will encourage more women to seek preventive care for cervical cancer through regular health screenings.
The first thing one notices about Dang Thi Phuong Nga is her smile. Shy at first, it slowly unravels to reveal the real Nga and in the process lights up her face.
Sitting at a café in a bustling neighbourhood in Ho Chi Minh City, Nga is drinking sweet local coffee, engrossed in conversation, and smiling. Anyone watching would think she’s having an everyday conversation.
But this is far from a typical conversation. “I remember the call from the doctor’s office at Van Hanh Hospital. He said my annual Pap smear results showed some abnormalities,” Nga says.
“My first thought is that there’s been a mistake because my Pap test results came back okay last year,” she states. However, there was a niggling doubt that maybe her doctor wasn’t wrong. She had been experiencing some irritation and abnormal fluid discharge for a while.
It’s when the doctor said that she would need to get a colposcopy that it hit Nga. “I had never heard this term before so it took me sometime to understand what the doctor was saying. I was nervous about having a colposcopy and in the days leading up to the procedure tried my hardest to get on with my daily routine.” But the thought of what could be was always at the back of her mind.
Reluctantly, Nga went for a colposcopy which showed she had CIN2. On receiving the results, Nga’s doctor referred her to Tu Du Hospital, Ho Chi Minh City’s largest Obstetrics & Gynaecology (O&G) hospital.
“This was at a time in my life when I didn’t know much about cancers but enough to know that any abnormality in the cervix is a cause for concern,” says Nga.
“The doctor didn’t use the word cervical cancer at this point, so I thought maybe if I don’t think about the word cancer it won’t be true,” she tries to explain.
Despite regularly undergoing preventive cancer screenings, Nga feels she was unprepared mentally. Since she had never considered herself to be at risk for cervical cancer, the situation she found herself in came as quite a shock. “It didn’t matter how familiar I was with the risk factors or the signs and symptoms of cervical cancer, nothing could have prepared me for something like this.”
“I was worried about myself and what this meant for my family. My first thought was my kids. They are still in their teens. What will happen to them?” Nga recalls.
That, however, was not the worst part. It was the feeling of helplessness that followed that really made this so much more difficult she says. “Not knowing, that’s what makes you miserable.”
After Nga’s first visit to Tu Du hospital, she had to wait for another two days to get a follow-up appointment.
“The whole time my mind was racing with a million thoughts and questions. I locked myself in my room and cried the whole time. But I didn’t want to let my kids see me in this state so I would make up some excuse to stay in my room.”
Having two boys she feels ironically made this slightly easier. “Boys tend to be in a world of their own so they may not be as perceptive. Mine had no idea what was going on.”
She rationalises this further. “As a mother and as a woman, I would rather face these difficulties than have my children or my loved ones go through this. I want to keep my sadness buried inside me and put on a brave face to protect them. I decided I wouldn’t tell anyone till I met the doctor and understood the situation more clearly. This was my battle and I needed to be the one to fight it.”
“The doctor told me I was lucky. The disease had been caught at an early stage and was treatable. To say I was relieved would be putting it mildly,” Nga reveals. She underwent a loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP), a common procedure to remove abnormal cervical cells and tissue, which uses a wire loop heated by electric current.1
Nga’s inspirational story of overcoming is an incredible reminder of how ordinary people can show extraordinary courage in times of crisis. The day of the appointment finally came by which time Nga says the worry and anxiety of the previous few days had reached a crescendo. She would soon find out there was a silver lining.
“After leaving the hospital, the first people I told were my mother and younger sister. As women, I felt, they would understand why I had chosen to keep my ordeal under wraps all this while. After that, I told my sons but kept the true nature of the diagnosis from them.”
Nga’s next appointment will determine the course of action and whether the current treatment has been a success.
Getting philosophical she says, “This was a reassurance from God that my time had not yet come.” It gave her the much needed motivation to use her personal journey to educate other women.
“I have always been proactive about undergoing regular screenings for both breast and cervical cancers because I know women are at risk. Which is why I can confidently say that regular screenings have saved my life. If I hadn’t been so diligent about my appointments maybe the doctors wouldn’t have caught it at an early stage,” Nga says.
For someone who kept her situation hidden from her loved ones, Nga is now a beacon of hope for other women – willing to share her story, offer a word of encouragement and an intuitive understanding of what these women are facing. “I know so much more about cervical cancer today than I did before. I am not a medical professional but I talk to other women in a way that I know they will appreciate – as one woman to another and as someone who has been on this path before them.”
“The one thing I always say is learn to prioritise your health. As women we feel that putting ourselves first makes us selfish. But taking care of your health is important so that you can take care of the people you love the most,” she says smiling. A smile that has stayed with Nga on her journey.
¹The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Patient FAQs Special Procedures. Loop Electrosurgical Excision Procedure (LEEP)