Resilience and Creativity: Ngo Thi Thanh Tra’s Journey of Overcoming Cancer and Building a New Life

The 43-year-old resident of District 6 in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, immerses herself in her dressmaking and sewing work every day.

A room adjacent to a small garden filled with fruit and flower trees is her separate space, where she sketches shirt and dress models, and makes clothes to find joy and maintain her mental strength.

During a recent meeting with some guests, she excitedly displayed her sewing notebook filled with meticulous handwriting and drawings.

Opening up about her imperfect face, she recounted how after receiving cancer treatment, she had to endure jawbone shrinkage, the loss of lower teeth, and a narrowed esophagus.

She received a nasopharyngeal cancer diagnosis in 1997, when she was in grade 11.

Tra vividly recalled a specific day when, after completing her first-term exam, she experienced a severe headache, which led to her hospitalization for a medical checkup.

Unfortunately, she was then thrust into a battle with the deadly disease.

“I was not afraid of death at that time, but rather I believed that my illness could be treated,” she said.

“My parents and aunts took turns accompanying me to the Ho Chi Minh City Oncology Hospital for treatment every two weeks. I was absent from school for an extended period.”

After several months of grueling chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment, she found respite as her doctors announced that her cancer had gone into remission in 1998.

She attempted to adjust to her sunken face and shaved head.

Tra wore a long wig to partially cover her face and resumed attending school.

She also recalled being teased about her wig by playful classmates.

Years passed, during which she held a stable job as a cashier at night. Additionally, she shouldered the responsibility of caring for her two younger siblings after her mother’s passing.

“During that time, I did not feel weary and believed I was in good health,” she said.

However, in 2007, she faced a setback when her right jawbone broke due to complications, resulting in a bacterial flesh infection.

“I sought consultations and treatments at various hospitals in Ho Chi Minh City,” she shared.

“While some suggested traveling to Singapore, the exorbitant costs proved to be a hindrance.”

After two years of enduring the pain, she decided to travel to Hanoi for treatment in 2010.

Doctors conducted two surgeries to remove the fibula from her left leg and attach it to her jawbone.

Regaining consciousness after the operations, Tra was astonished as her voice had changed.

Ngo Thi Thanh Tra displays a photo of her face following surgery. Photo: Yen Trinh / Tuoi Tre

Her imperfect face and impaired speech made her hesitant to meet or converse with anyone.

“I simply stayed home for three years,” she said.

Tears welled up in her eyes as she recalled that she could only ingest puréed food.

A Vital Source of Empowerment

She began to see the brighter side of life by wholeheartedly embracing sewing.

“I encouraged myself to pursue new and fulfilling activities because life goes on, and I must live,” she said.

“Since I could not continue my previous job, I had to find a new path.”

In 2006, Tra enrolled in sewing training courses at the Women’s Cultural House of Ho Chi Minh City. After completing three courses and acquiring sewing and dressmaking skills, she decided to discontinue further training.

“During that period, I was still experiencing depression. When my classmates approached me or tried to engage in conversation, I would write my responses on paper and hand them over. I even expressed in writing that I felt inadequate,” she confided.

“After many months, I felt an improvement in my mood and became more spirited.”

Tra created pants and shirts for herself and her grandmother after purchasing a used sewing machine for VND5 million (US$203.3).

She accepted a position at a clothing store to enhance her professional skills, but she promptly resigned when her father was diagnosed with liver cancer, requiring her dedicated care.

His subsequent passing dealt her a significant emotional blow.

Ngo Thi Thanh Tra immerses herself in sewing each day. Photo: Yen Trinh / Tuoi Tre

Her challenges persisted as her impaired voice hindered her ability to secure employment.

She was finally hired by an apparel company after sending job applications to numerous businesses in Ho Chi Minh City.

Heavy workloads, night shifts, and her fluctuating health forced her to leave two jobs despite her diligent efforts.

Due to an economic slowdown, she is temporarily unemployed and resides at home, caring for her grandparents.

Nevertheless, she continues to search for work as an accountant, cashier, or ticket checker.

In her spare time, she finds solace in sewing, viewing it as a source of motivation.

She considers herself fortunate to be alive and surrounded by the love of her friends and family despite the hardships and illnesses she has endured.