Shelter cares for 20 breast cancer patients in HCM City
‘Family’ ups and downs
By noon, the shabby house was hot as a furnace. It was crowded with female patients who had had cancer exams, chemotherapy, and radiation treatment at Oncology Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City.
With a red face and swollen eyelids as if she had just cried, Nguyen Thi Thay (born 1956, from Tien Giang) tried to lift her trembling arm to receive a glass of lemonade from a bald woman. Her chest and head were crisscrossed with huge scars.
It was Nguyen Thi Phuong, who had rented the house as a shelter for women under the same condition.
“They just returned from radiation treatment so she is very tired. We just massaged her and made lemonade to help her regain her strength. It is usual here for the stronger to take care of the weaker, like sisters in a family," said Phuong at that time. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2019 and had stayed in a hospital without a supporting family.
Formed from the efforts of Phuong, who was in the final stage of the disease, the hostel became the second family for 20 women with breast cancer.
Vo Thi My Duyen, 50, from Binh Tan district, who met Phuong in the hospital, volunteered to take care of her for free. Phuong, Duyen and the others had stayed in the hospital halls waiting for the days when the medicine arrived.
However, they were forced to go out and find temporary accommodation when the hospital asked patients not to continue to live in the halls after Covid-19 broke out again in May 2021.
The high cost of rent and the compassion for those who suffer the same fate led to Phuong’s decision to sell her house and share the money with fellow patients. She reserved some for treatment and used the rest for the rent of the hostel.
"We all suffer from the same disease and have had a mastectomy to remove one breast, so it's uplifting to call it a house of ‘one-breast sisters’. We went to the same hospital for medical examination and treatment, then met and introduced each other to this inn. Now, we all work together to pay the rent,” Duyen shared.
“Here and there we came to live together but we consider each other family. Sisters in the same situation, suffering from the same cancer, should understand and love each other very much. Living together, we can share sorrows, hardships and joy, and battle diseases together," she added.
Optimistic and relentless
65-year-old lottery ticker vendor Huynh Thi Le, diagnosed in 2018, was more than delighted to join the sisters’ home as her meager pay was only enough for monthly medicine.
“By day, I sell lottery tickets, by night I asked to sleep in the hospital corridor. As my health is terrible from the cancer, I was very weak, I kept fainting on hot days. Fortunately, Ms Phuong loved me and allowed me to live with her. It's a lot of fun here, sisters have each other’s back, so there's nothing to be afraid of. We are not afraid of sorrow and we are not afraid of death anymore," Ms. Le said.
Before coming to the house, many cancer patients were pessimistic, falling into despair when they knew they would soon part with the temporary world. Some were suffering, depressed and desperate to the point of suicide.
Then, older members of the family gathered together to advise, comfort and share positive thoughts and an optimistic outlook on life to make them more hopeful as sadness only worsened the disease. Instead, they spread a message to spend their rest of the days optimistically and beautifully.
“The sisters take care of each other. Those who come first take care of those who come later. Only in the same situation can we understand each other, so we take care of each other from mental health to physical health. We cook for each other for healthy eating and we listen, share joys and sorrows with each other,” said Duyen.
Nearly a year ago, thanks to the loving shelter, Mai Thi Nhi (36 years old, from Phu Yen province) longs for her home and children. She she had to leave her hometown to go to Ho Chi Minh City to treat the disease. Suffering from cancer at a very young age, Nhi struggles every day in sorrow.
But since joining the home, her yearning to see her 3-year-old child has been alleviated by the sharing and comforting from the sisters. She also found joy in being the “motorbike chauffeur” for Duyen, driving her to the market every day to cook for the whole family.
Now, the only sadness is to see other sisters pass away.
"Last year, we said goodbye to some. No one could hold back tears. But no one cries out of fear of death, but cried out of pity for the departed,” Duyen said.
“We stay and fight together so we love each other. Even though we know that someone will have to leave eventually, seeing that scene is like losing a loved one. It's heart wrenching, so the tears just keep falling," she added.