When 34-year-old Minhthu Nguyen was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer, she and her husband Padrick Barrett were stunned and shaken by the news. “We were brand new parents of a baby girl, Lien, so to learn about the severity of Minhthu’s illness was pretty shocking,” says Padrick. “But in typical fashion, Minhthu didn’t wallow in self-pity. She told me she wanted to approach her treatment with grace and dignity, and that’s what she did.”
Minhthu and Padrick sought care from Mark Graham, MD, of Waverly Hematology Oncology in Cary, NC, where he told the couple it was possible that Minhthu’s pregnancy had actually masked the symptoms of her disease and allowed her tumor to progress undetected, since the signs and symptoms of breast cancer can be similar to the changes in a woman’s body during pregnancy.
"Minhthu had advanced metastatic cancer, so she and Padrick were interested in being referred to one of the larger, more well-known cancer centers like MD Anderson or the Mayo Clinic,” says Graham. “But I strongly encouraged them to pursue treatment at UNC Lineberger, specifically, with Chuck Perou, PhD. I told them that Chuck is North Carolina’s best kept secret, a true forerunner in the field of breast cancer research and genomics.”
The two took Graham’s advice and worked closely with Perou and Ben Calvo, MD, both UNC Lineberger members, to fight her disease. In fact, they were so impressed with Perou’s lab, his commitment to research, his humility and exceptional caregiving spirit, they have contributed more than $100,000 to his work.
“The investment that Minhthu and Padrick have made to my work is both substantial and inspiring,” says Perou, the May Goldman Shaw Distinguished Professor of Molecular Oncology. “As a researcher, every dollar helps, but more importantly, meeting individuals like Minhthu gives us an additional drive to try and make a difference in the lives of cancer patients. This gives me more focus and more meaning to our work.”
Minhthu and Padrick also became involved in Fight for 1 in 9, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to easing some of the burdens—emotional, physical and financial—that come along with the diagnosis of breast cancer. “Minhthu saw other cancer patients who had to choose between getting treatment and working to provide for their families,” explains Padrick.
“We were fortunate to have the resources to pay for Minhthu’s care, and she even took a year off from work during her treatment. But we realized there are many who can’t afford to do that. A cancer diagnosis can be both emotionally and financially devastating.
Minhthu’s generosity spilled over into her professional life as well. At her dental practice, Gentle Family Dentistry, she frequently performed pro bono services for other cancer patients, and there were specific days when a portion of office receipts went to charity. “Minhthu was committed to making life better for our staff and patients,” says Padrick. “She was always doing special things for others. She was the ultimate giver.”
The gift that keeps giving
Minhthu passed away on September 8, 2015, following her courageous four-year battle against breast cancer. To honor Minhthu’s memory, her brother, Dr. Phong Nguyen and her husband Padrick made a gift of $250,000, choosing to name the mammography reception area in the N.C. Cancer Hospital for her. Minhthu’s family will also furnish the space with fresh flowers at all times and have refreshments catered in once a month.
“This gift is so meaningful because of the impact it makes on our multidisciplinary patients,” explains Cherie Kuzmiak, DO, FACR, FSBI, director, Breast Imaging Division and associate professor of radiology at the UNC School of Medicine.
“Most of them are diagnosed here or have come to us for a second opinion, and they are dealing with very stressful situations. Sometimes they’re here for six to eight hours in one day, consulting with surgeons, geneticists, oncologists, plastic surgeons and others. These patients may not have time to go to the cafeteria between appointments, so having sandwiches, fresh fruit, granola bars and other snacks available to them is such a kind and thoughtful gesture.”
Kathy Taylor, RT(R)(M), breast imaging supervisor, echoes Kuzimiak’s appreciation, saying the gift will also lighten the financial load many patients face because of this disease. “There are some who drive from long distances to receive cancer treatments in Chapel Hill, and there are associated expenses; fuel for their vehicles, parking fees, lodging, and the list continues,” Taylor says.
“By having refreshments catered in, patients won’t need to spend money on meals while they’re here at the hospital. It may seem like a simple thing, but to many patients, it makes a huge difference in their day.”
Padrick says Minhthu, an eternal optimist, wanted other cancer patients to feel hopeful and encouraged about the possibility of beating cancer. Minhthu believed that having a team of physicians from UNC Lineberger was a major step forward in this battle.
“UNC Lineberger is a wonderful leader in cancer research and care, but many people aren’t aware of the amazing work they do every day,” says Padrick. “Every person we’ve met here has been genuinely welcoming, just like Minhthu was. She didn’t get to live the life she wanted, but by making this gift to UNC Lineberger, our family is doing what we can to keep her spirit alive.”