Janelle Le. Photo credit: Jacklyn Tran.

In the summer of 1993, Janelle Le was about to enter her senior year at Lindbergh high school when she experienced something she had felt dozens of times before, a cold. A month later, a severe cough developed and doctors were perplexed after incorrectly diagnosing her with bronchitis and then pneumonia. Test after test was conducted before doctors were finally able to deliver shocking news. Le had cancer.

“Chest x-rays, tests and blood checks couldn’t figure out what was wrong,” said Le. “But when a CAT scan was done, they saw a mass around my left lung. A tumor was growing and a biopsy confirmed it was [non-Hodgkin lymphoma type] cancer.”

Doctors quickly scheduled surgery to remove the tumor along with part of Janelle’s lung, much to the dismay of the young volleyball-playing teen who showed almost no signs of the disease beyond the cold symptoms, minor fatigue and weight loss. She had no prior family history of cancer.

“An incision was made from my chest all the way around to my back. I had no idea it was going to hurt so much. […] I missed my whole senior year. For 6 months after surgery, I went through chemotherapy. Every 3 days I would just sit in the hospital for 6 hours with an IV in me. It was exhausting. It only hit me when I lost my hair. I thought, ‘Oh my God, I have cancer.’ I had long hair and I’d run my hands through it and clumps would come out,” shared Le.

Instead of coming home from school and thinking about friends, volleyball and homework, Le came home from chemotherapy sessions and found it difficult to think of anything but being sick.

Le explained, “I was throwing up all the time and was constantly tired. Anything I ate I threw up and they put me on steroids the whole time so I gained a lot of weight.”

After treatment, Le experienced the best results that any cancer patient could hope for. Monthly, quarterly then yearly check-ups throughout a 5-year period showed no signs of cancer and she was considered to be in remission.

Le is considered lucky. Cancer had only taken a year of her life, whereas other patients have years or even a lifetime taken from them in their battle against the disease.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), each year, more than 1 million people in the United States are diagnosed with cancer and data shows that ethnic minorities and groups medically underserved are more likely to develop cancer and die from it than the general U.S. population.

In Le’s case, early detection was a key factor in her chances for a full recovery. Her parents took proper precaution by continually following up until they figured out what the problem was.

Findings in an ASC study showed that Asian American and Pacific Islander women were more vulnerable to structural and cultural barriers to cancer screening efforts making education of the health system and finding a doctor that one can properly communicate with and understand without a language barrier extremely important.

Specific causes of certain cancers are not always fully understood, like in Le’s situation, but many cases often stem from damage to genes built up over time. With this in mind, the ACS lists several ways that people can help reduce their risk.

  • Strive to maintain a healthy weight by balancing caloric intake.
  • Be physically fit by incorporating moderate to vigorous physical activity into your weekly routine.
  • Eat a healthy diet with plenty of vegetables, whole grains and fruits while limiting the amount of processed and red meats.
  • Limit alcoholic intake. No more than one drink per day for women and two for men.
  • Avoid things that are proven to cause cancer such as smoking and excessive exposure to sunlight and UV light. Minimize contact with environmental toxins and chemicals that can be found at home or work.
  • Get screenings (such as mammograms or colonoscopies) and tested for common cancers and pre-cancers. Early detection can often make a world of difference with treatment often keeping pre-cancers from growing into cancer.

Recent years’ studies conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show cancer as the leading cause of death in Asian Pacific Islanders in the U.S. But by educating ourselves and those around us, these statistics can change. Reaching out for information, asking questions and having a general awareness, are steps that can take the mystery and subsequently the fear out of a disease in which preventative measures can sometimes be a way to take life into our own hands.

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