Crystal Nguyen hears it from her friends all the time: How hard was it to have cancer? Did it hurt?
In her response, the 15-year-old betrays the maturity and knowledge gained through her dramatic experiences: she’s had to endure cancer treatment and a bone marrow transplant, cope with a serious sepsis infection, and spend a month in a medically-induced coma.
“For me, it was more of an emotional thing than physical,” she recalls.
“I don’t think the cancer itself hurt,” she adds, though side effects of strong therapeutic medicines did cause complications. "However, it’s worse seeing my parents go through having to watch me.”
The Nguyens learned Crystal had cancer in June, 2011.
“Hearing the diagnosis was surreal,” Crystal recalls. “You don’t believe it could happen to you. It only happens in movies or books, and to other people.”
Crystal launched into her first round of chemotherapy within two weeks of her diagnosis. But after her third round of treatment, she was diagnosed with sepsis, a serious infection that occurs when blood is infected with harmful bacteria and toxins.
“That night I had severe stomach pain, and I remember the nurses were in my room for a long time. That’s the last thing I remember and then I woke up with all these wires and tubes attached to me and with all this equipment around.”
She had spent a month in the coma, which she learned helped her heal and spared her from the discomfort associated with such a severe infection.
Today, Crystal has settled back to her life, or close to it: she has to be careful not to extend herself physically as the intense treatment has weakened her heart. Otherwise, though, she’s back to a busy life as a grade 11 student.
Crystal’s mom Vi recalls that month as one of the most difficult times in the family’s life.
“There is no history of cancer in our family, so it was like an out-of-body experience. Our whole world was turned upside down.
Enduring the month-long coma was difficult and intense for the family," she adds.
“That was the scariest moment of our lives—knowing that we were clinging, and hanging on by the seconds, by the minute, not knowing if another hour was possible.”
But soon after, the family would endure another trial: in April, 2014, two-and-a-half years into her remission, Crystal relapsed. The returning tumour was small enough to be treated quickly—with a bone marrow transplant that forced her into isolation for nearly a month. That certainly wasn’t easy, but it was the last huge trial she had to endure in her fight with the disease.
The relapse, Crystal recalls, “was surreal times two. But it was a little easier going in the second time, because I had an advantage that we caught the cancer early on.”
Considering her circumstances, it was perfectly natural for Crystal to set her mind to her bright future: she’s set on training for a career as a nurse specializing in pediatric oncology, treating young patients just like her.
Through it all, though, the Nguyens’ solid family unit carried her through, she says. “My parents are always there for me, making sure everything is okay.”
In turn, Vi says the family looked to BC Children’s caregivers for their own support.
“All the staff at Children’s were instrumental in helping our family go through the process, not only with their knowledge but with their emotional support as well.
There aren’t enough words for me to thank all the people who have helped us through this journey.”