Earlier this year, April Trinh, age 32, was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer. Following a mastectomy, sentinel lymph node dissection and five weeks of radiation, she is now living cancer-free with a fresh perspective on life. "I continue to ask myself questions that push me to grow and learn more deeply about myself and my place in the world," she explains. To learn more about April's journey and what she considered to be her top priorities in healing, including integrating alternative therapies and holistic practices, read our interview below.
Name: April Trinh
Location: Currently living in San Francisco
Current Health Status: No evidence of disease and healthy.
When were you diagnosed with breast cancer?
I was diagnosed in late January 2017 at 32 years old.
What were your first thoughts when you were diagnosed?
Complete disbelief, and then deep panic – I had quit my pharmacy job two weeks prior and desperately needed health insurance! For the first few days, I was oddly more concerned and distracted by the status of my health coverage than my actual health.
How did your friends and family take the news?
I was parked in the driveway with my mom and dad, and I was just about to leave and drop them off at a party when I received the call from the radiologist with my biopsy results. When I ended the call, I started crying out of shock, and they comforted me. But then I ended up going back into the house while they proceeded to their party. When I come to think of it, this sounds kind of insensitive, but at that moment, it was actually the best thing they could have done for me. I wanted and needed to be alone in order to reflect on my new reality. All in all, my family and friends have been incredibly supportive – supportive in ways I didn’t know other humans were capable of – with such generosity and ease.
Describe your treatment and how you arrived at that course of action.
My treatment consisted of a right breast mastectomy and sentinel lymph node dissection with five weeks of radiation. I thankfully was diagnosed as Stage 1, without evidence of metastasis, so chemotherapy was not recommended. I think if I was faced with chemotherapy, this entire experience would have been very different and much more challenging.
Were you able to work through treatment?
I knew that if I continued to work while going through treatment, it would have added unnecessary stress as well as not benefited my healing and recovery. So I decided to take some time off. Some women prefer to work through treatment as a way to distract themselves and keep busy, but I'm not even that type of person in general – I'm ok not being busy all the time.
Where and how did you find the best care?
I’m super fortunate to have a very Type A older sister who pretty much lives for researching. Whether she's spending hours looking for the best electric toothbrush or the most qualified and sought after medical oncologist, she will find all the answers! After diagnosis, research felt very exhausting and overwhelming, so I ended up relying heavily on what she found. She also consulted with friends, coworkers and acquaintances for doctor recommendations, in addition to my meeting with many different surgeons. I ended up choosing a surgeon from Kaiser in West Los Angeles. I went with her because as soon as she walked into the exam room, I felt more comfortable – she was calm, kind, patient and had lots of experience, which all helped me feel confident and trust in her.
Did you receive any additional support or alternative therapies?
A big YES! Learning and integrating alternative therapies was a major priority for me from the very beginning. I felt that cancer had a profoundly powerful emotional component to it. I would feel pain in the tumor area when I was struggling with something troubling, and even before the diagnosis, I knew that pain was a signal of something needing to be acknowledged and expressed – I just didn’t know what it was at the time and never would have imagined that a physical cancer was growing. I'm a strong advocate for natural healing and believe that all parts of the body, mind and spirit are intrinsically connected. Because conventional western medicine doesn’t operate from this paradigm, it was imperative for me to seek out alternative ways of healing that fully utilized a holistic approach. I was gifted so many beautiful sources of healing – I attended and participated in a traditional Mayan healing ceremony, received Native American “doctoring”, reiki, sound bowl healing, drank small doses of peyote tea and traditional plant medicine from Belize – all given to me by essential strangers that became instant spiritual guides and helpers. I also most recently met with a naturopath to more closely review my diet and lifestyle. Informal alternative therapy has been a mindful reflection and self-examination – a continuous practice of shining a light on the darker parts of myself in balance with congratulating and praising myself for my inherent greatness.
What or who have been your biggest supports? Who makes up your cancer tribe?
My family and friends have definitely been my biggest supporters. I have a happy memory of being in the hospital room, immediately after surgery, with my mom, dad, 2 sisters and 2 best friends. We were all crammed in the room – some standing, some sitting on the floor – and for hours upon hours, there was non-stop laughter. That memory is a perfect representation of my recovery and the support I've received. I’m super lucky and grateful.
What has been one of the most challenging aspects of the experience for you?
Feeling like I’m doing my best. It’s hard for me not to fall into the trap of the laundry-list of “must-haves” and “to-dos” when it comes to healthy living and processing after such a traumatic event. Letting go of the duality – right and wrong, good and bad, positive and negative – is a constant practice. There are so many unknowns with cancer, and remembering to accept a lot of that mystery is still hard.
What is one thing you wish you knew before you were diagnosed?
Although my cancer was caught early, I wish I had known my family health history. A relative of mine was diagnosed and received treatment for breast cancer, but I had not known until after my own diagnosis. Therefore, I didn’t share this information with the radiologist after the 1st mammogram, which delayed the need for a biopsy for 6 months.
Is there a particular mantra or inspiration that helps you?
Everybody is going to die at some point from something. Morbid, but so true! Remembering this truth helps create a sense of urgency that many of us don’t have because time and health are very easily taken for granted.
If you could offer a woman, who has been newly diagnosed, some words of wisdom for her journey, what would you tell her?
You will be faced with a bombardment of decisions – big and small. Do what you need to do to the best of your ability and the information you have. Then, have trust and be at peace with it. There will be a lot of uncertainty, but in many ways, the peace you can create for yourself can be your salvation in the midst of the torturing process of treatment choices.
What are you most proud of in your cancer journey?
I’m most proud of the narrative I’ve chosen for myself. I don’t necessarily think there is one “right” perspective to adopt (as people process, react and cope differently), but I never felt victimized from this experience. Instead, I continue to ask myself questions that push me to grow and learn more deeply about myself and my place in the world.
How has breast cancer affected your outlook on life? On illness?
I’ve developed more compassion for illness and how it affects people’s lives. I never had any health issues prior, so now I have a sense of empathy that I was unable to have before. I’m also hyper-aware that illness strongly affects friends and family in a profound way. “Cancer” is still a trigger word for me. When I hear it spoken, I feel an immediate contraction of energy in my body. It’s intensely personal, and I think it’s a feeling that can only be familiar to people who have directly experienced it. I still sometimes believe this physical reaction may be “unprocessed” pain, but I’ve been told that time helps with this awkward feeling. The effect on my outlook has been that I think we are so much more expansive than what we identify as – physical bodies on this earth. There’s a connection and relationship to life that resides inside and outside our bodies that is really powerful, and the acute awareness of this can help us transcend pain and suffering.
How have you changed?
I honestly don’t know. I probably have, and at the very least I hope I have changed in positive ways. I think time and distance will help me answer this best.