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Reconstructing Hope: Transforming Breast Cancer Care in Vietnam

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Son Hoang from central Vietnam wears many hats – a doting grandmother, a devoted mother, a resilient widow, an inspiring leader, and a brave breast cancer survivor. Her vivacity radiates to all those in her orbit. However, life has not been without its trials for Son. In 2005, she confronted the sudden loss of her husband, making her solely responsible for raising her two daughters. Embracing her circumstances, she honed her skills as a tailor to provide for her family. Yet, in 2014, fate dealt her another blow. Son was diagnosed with breast cancer. Determined as ever, she resolved to stand tall in the face of adversity. However, the aftermath of a double mastectomy saw her grappling with a different battle – one of depression and dwindling self-confidence, as she tried to reconcile with a body that felt unfamiliar.

Breast cancer is a private matter –– rarely discussed openly in Son’s community or across Vietnam. In many low- and middle-income countries, there are only a few surgeons (if any) trained to perform this complex procedure. As a result, breast reconstruction was a distant concept, even to many local physicians or oncologists. Luckily for Son Hoang, she got word of pioneer Dr. Trung Hau, a ReSurge International partner and the first plastic surgeon in central Vietnam to perform breast reconstruction. She traveled to Hue, a few hours from her home outside of Danang to meet with Dr. Hau.

Dr. Trung Hau

In 2015 she became one of Dr. Hau’s patients–accessing a breast cancer reconstruction that would not just change her life but would also inspire hundreds of other breast cancer survivors around her.  

“Breast cancer is the most common cause of cancer for women (in Vietnam). But when a woman goes through chemo, radiation, and/or mastectomy, no one thinks about reconstruction as an option,” explains Dr. Hau. “We are changing that.”

The barriers Son faced are not unusual. Research shows that patients are less likely to receive breast reconstruction in rural areas. Similarly, high costs and limited reimbursement impede access to the procedure for women worldwide.

But Son’s experience proved to be a positive one. Post-reconstruction, she felt transformed. She considers herself fortunate to have been cared for by a world-class doctor. Unfortunately, not everyone in her country has the same opportunity.

Son Hoang speaks at a local event

Since there is no national training system for breast cancer reconstruction in Vietnam, each year ReSurge sends Dr. Dung Nguyen, a medical volunteer and the Director of Breast Reconstruction at the Stanford Women’s Cancer Center, to train Dr. Trung Hau’s residents and other surgical trainees from across the country. This enables breast cancer survivors, who would otherwise be unable to afford or access reconstructive surgery, to receive care. These visits also provide a critical training ground for the next generation of local surgeons. By building capacity in Vietnam, Dr. Nguyen and Dr. Hau are helping to ensure that reconstructive surgical care will be available throughout the year – not just during these annual visits.

Son Hoang was fortunate to be from Vietnam, a country that has a cancer detection, treatment, and now – thanks to pioneers like Dr. Trung Hau – microsurgery capabilities for reconstruction. But this is not the case in many countries around the world. ReSurge’s program in Vietnam is becoming a global training center for breast reconstruction training. Later this year, women surgeons from Ecuador, India, Nepal, Tanzania, and Zambia will travel to Vietnam to study under the guidance of Dr. Nguyen and Dr. Hau. These surgeons, all part of ReSurge’s Pioneering Women in Reconstructive Surgery program, will learn skills they can eventually apply and, in the future, even teach in their respective communities.

Through these efforts, ReSurge is supporting the first generation of reconstructive surgeons in many underserved communities, creating a ripple effect on trainees for generations to come. Ultimately, this will enable greater access to surgical care for patients and provide more people throughout the world with life-transforming reconstructive surgery.

As for Son, she is also creating a ripple effect. While in the hospital, she saw the pain and sorrow of other patients and families.  She encountered other breast cancer patients while picking up her medicine and found herself wondering how they were feeling. She craved a community to both provide and receive support.

Along with others in similar situations, Son became a leader for the Pink Bows, a group of over 100 breast cancer survivors who meet regularly to discuss, motivate, and support one another. But their vision is even greater. They want to ensure more women know about reconstructive surgery so that they, too, can benefit from the life-changing procedure.

That is exactly what Dr. Hau is trying to do, as well.

“I want my patients to have quality of life. It is so important, they feel whole again and gain confidence,” he says.

Today, because of Dr. Hau, Son not only has her confidence but her active, fulfilling life back.

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