When a serial entrepreneur faced a harrowing diagnosis, she turned around and with the help of her physicians at USC Norris, created opportunities to support other cancer patients internationally.
Thuy Truong is a lot of things in a remarkably tiny package — an ambitious USC alumnus, a driven computer engineer and a multilingual and highly successful entrepreneur. She’s also a lung cancer survivor who faced a stage 4 cancer diagnosis with help from physicians at USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Truong, a native of Vietnam and a 2009 graduate of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, returned to her home country soon after graduation to begin life as a remarkably successful young businesswoman. She started the country’s first frozen yogurt chain and dove headfirst into creating a number of successful apps.
But in the summer of 2016, after a strenuous workout at her favorite gym in Hanoi, she couldn’t shake a bothersome pain in her neck and shoulder. When the painkillers one doctor prescribed didn’t work, she tried massage, then acupuncture, but the pain persisted. An X-ray at the local emergency room raised the suspicion that something more serious than a strained muscle was responsible and subsequent tests confirmed it.
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When she got the diagnosis of lung cancer, she was incredulous. “I heard the word ‘cancer’ but I thought, this can’t be that bad, it can’t really be serious, because I was just at the gym working out,” she recalls. “I’d just finished a 10-mile hike a few days before.”
Truong knew immediately that she wanted to be treated at USC Norris. “I’d had a lump removed from my breast there 10 years earlier, so I already knew how good the doctors were,” she explains.
While her family members still were reeling with concern, Truong got busy making arrangements. With a promise to hand-deliver her medical records as soon as she arrived in Los Angeles, she made an appointment to see Jorge Nieva, MD, associate professor of clinical medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, who confirmed the diagnosis and the staging of her cancer, then immediately arranged to have her tested to see if she would be a good candidate for some highly successful alternative treatment options. She was — and under Nieva’s supervision, she began treatment right away.
It wasn’t always easy going. There were days when her throat hurt so badly from the chemotherapy that she could barely speak and was forced to drink all her meals. Despite being a self-proclaimed picky eater, “I threw everything — pork, rice, vegetables, everything — into the blender,” she says.
The treatments often left her feeling weak, and her weight dropped precipitously, but her determination to fight as hard as she could against this life-threatening disease never wavered.
Fighting for herself alone, however, was never an option. As soon as she had the strength, she applied her engineer’s brain to coming up with a novel way to bring relief and information to cancer patients all over the world. In partnership with Nieva and Peter Kuhn, PhD, founding member of the Michelson Center for Convergent Biosciences at USC, the “Hack for Health” was born.
Hack for Health is a three-day “hackathon” in which nine teams aim to produce technological solutions for dealing with cancer. The first event, which took place in April 2017, featured dozens of USC undergraduate and graduate students who locked themselves in classrooms until they created an app, website or algorithm to tackle issues related to cancer treatment and a patient’s quality of life. The winners were awarded cash prizes of up to $500 as well as funding of $3,000 per team member to develop their cancer solutions.
Truong also founded a nonprofit that provides information, education and support to cancer patients and caregivers in Vietnam. The Salt Cancer Initiative hosted about 1,000 cancer patients, oncologists and medical students at a weeklong event held in September in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
“The internet-based technologies we are developing at USC can connect and help patients around the world,” said Kuhn, professor of medicine, biomedical engineering, and aerospace and mechanical engineering at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, the Keck School and the USC Viterbi School who traveled to the event to speak about a patient-centric approach to cancer treatment and research in a forum called “Era of Hope.”
“USC’s global convergent science initiative in cancer is aimed at providing patients with hope for the future and with certainty about their cancer care,” he said. “Our collaboration with the Salt Cancer Initiative is a critical piece in working directly with the patient community in Vietnam.”
This event and the nonprofit’s efforts are rooted in Truong’s experience at USC Norris and the support system she wanted to share with cancer patients internationally.
“It was the vision and commitment of Salt Cancer Initiative and its co-organizers to provide mental support for cancer patients in Vietnam so that no cancer patient has to face this fatal disease alone,” Truong said.
By Leigh Bailey