Bui Thu Thuy, 33, panted heavily, trying to catch her breath. Her hands and feet were frozen stiff and she felt her brain was melting. It was very difficult to keep moving, but she kept pushing herself, struggling to ignore the wet, muddy path under her boots and the sticky, moist air that surrounded her. Her backpack felt heavier than ever.
|Love and beauty: Thuy has chosen to let only love, beauty and positivity stay in her life. — Photo courtesy of Thuy Bui|
Then she saw the summit. With newfound strength, she quickened her pace. In a few minutes, she'd made it to the top of Fansipang Mountain, on a foggy, rainy, freezing mid-December day. The mercury had dipped to six degrees below zero.
There was no "stunning view" on offer. Just dense fog. But atop the highest mountain in Southeast Asia at 3143 metres, Thuy's exhilaration was at its peak. She had just stamped her will on a new lease of life. She was ready for the New Year. She had climbed a mountain beyond a mountain.
Just 14 days earlier, Thuy had completed the eighth and final round of chemotherapy after undergoing surgery for breast cancer. She had no hair left on her head, and five years of hormone therapy lay ahead, but she felt amazing.
Bald and beautiful
After taking some pictures of herself, the single mom called Bop, her 10-year-old son. She told him that she had made it to the top. His deafening scream of joy and delight made the climb, done against the doctor's advice, worth every single step.
"I knew you could do it, mother. I'm so proud of you."
It was too cold to stay, and time to descend. Her feet were aching like hell, but Thuy was not tired. She felt great. Her doctor had advised at least six months of rest, but, for the first time she began treatment since being diagnosed with breast cancer in June, she had been disobedient.
She'd had enough of being a patient, and wanted to feel healthy and normal again. Most importantly, she wanted her little son, who'd been at her side through the entire ordeal, know that she was strong, someone he can be proud of. She wanted him to be strong, too. On current evidence, she has accomplished that mission, too.
"I'm 300 hundred per cent proud of my mother. She's a fighter. But most of all, I love her more than anything," said Bop, whose real name is Nguyen.
Bop said he and his mother are best friends. "Like this," he said, twining two of his fingers. He said he wanted to do everything with his mother. And this is what they do. If he learns to play chess or the piano, his mother would be a student, too.
Mother and son had been living a happy life, because "She smiles and talks all day. She talks a lot, just like my grandma."
Bolt from the blue
Their smooth co-existence was rudely interrupted by an evening talk, when Thuy told Bop she had cancer. Bop knew cancer. His grandpa had it. It had made him so weak that he lay in bed all day. And everybody said he was going to die.
"I asked my mom when she would die. And she said, in the worst case, less than five years." He had burst into tears immediately, and screamed: "I don't want you to die, I don't want you to die."
His mother calmed him down, saying she was kidding and that she was not going to die soon. And even if it happened, "she would always be in my heart", Bop said. But Thuy wanted him to be strong.
"She said I have to change, I have to learn to take care of myself. And I must never cry," he said.
He tried to do it for his mom. He never cried in front of her or anyone.
"I do cry by myself sometimes, you know, but not like screaming like a baby, I just let my tears run down my face for a while. I need to be strong for mom, I need to take care of her," said Bop, forced at 10 years to be a man.
It was not easy for Thuy to be calm in front of her son. Her first thoughts on learning that she had breast cancer was him.
"We're more than close friends, we're like one. If I died, what would happen to him? For a moment, I thought: If only I could live until he gets married!"
After the talk with Bop, Thuy had the surgery to remove a breast. On July 7, 2015, she had the first of her eight chemos. Since it was the summer holidays, Bop was with her most of the time, massaging her arms and legs, bring her pills, taking her to the rest room when she had to throw up, cleaning the house, cooking simple dishes… and making a thousand paper birds for his mother's health.
Thuy remembers some tough times during the second chemo. She was very tired then, and kept throwing up all the time, seen only by her son.
"I was a mess. I was so tired. Seeing me vomit continuously, Bop was so scared that he cried a lot, screamed a lot. He felt helpless and didn't know what to do to help me. Then I felt terrible about myself. How could I let a 10-year-old baby witness such moments? How could he stand it?" Thuy said, tears welling up in her eyes at the memory.
So she decided she would never let him see her in the same situation again.
"It works like magic when you started to tell yourself not to feel tired – I mean it really helps when you think positively."
A new job
Once Thuy found out about her illness, she stopped working for the company she had set up herself with a friend. But she had to earn her daily bread and the treatment was not going to be cheap.
There was no option but to continue working hard. She began making cakes and other foodstuff at home and selling them online.
Bop was supportive, although cakes were not his thing.
"I have never liked sweet things like cakes or candy. But mom was making a lot of cakes," he said, smiling.
"She made cakes all day and was really busy. There were days when she would work until 2am. She said she needed money to buy me clothes and pay my tuition, but I know she also needed money to pay for her treatment," Bop said.
Bui Duc Thang,Thuy's father, said he was in much pain on learning about her condition, but glad that Thuy was stronger than he'd thought.
He said there was only one time when he saw Thuy in a bad shape, after the third chemo. She was lying on the bed like a log, but even then, she was always "checking" and "guiding" her helpers with making the cakes and other stuff.
"She would go to the hospital for the chemos by herself, and when she returned, she would rush into the kitchen to start baking cakes, or making some food, singing aloud," he recalled.
"We offered to pay, but Thuy said it would be a shame if she did not earn enough for her own treatment, and to have some savings for her son, even if she had to die."
But Thuy is not going to die any time soon. After finishing her last chemo, she will have further treatment, but her spirit is high. She has been a great inspiration for others, too. On her Facebook page with more than 10,000 followers, a lot of whom are cancer patients themselves, people always see her smile. Beautiful, broad smiles.
"She's one of the strongest and most positive persons I've ever met. Life is tough sometimes, but looking at how she fought back cancer, I myself feel calm," said Nguyen Dieu Linh, Thuy's surgeon.
In her small, cosy kitchen which always stuffed with chung cakes, mochi cakes, Vietnamese head cheese (gio xao) and other goodies, Thuy said being positive was her only choice.
"I've friends who have died of cancer, I've met small children with more serious diseases. I'm still much luckier than them.
"Life is so worth living and what matters is not how long you are going to live, but how well you're going to live," she said, sporting that perennial smile on her face.
Cancer awareness low in Viet Nam
At least 150,000 new cancer cases are diagnosed in Viet Nam each year. Lung, liver, stomach, colorectal and nasopharynx cancers are the leading cancers for men, while women are most afflicted by breast, cervix, stomach and liver cancers.
Cancer awareness is relatively low among the Vietnamese people. A recent survey covering 12 provinces found 67 per cent of the respondents saying cancer is fatal, whether it is detected early or late. 35 per cent think if surgeries are performed on cancer patients, the disease will develop faster and patients will die.