Life Lessons

Chau Dang’s life has all the makings of a film.

Chau T. Dang, MD
Chau Dang is Chief of the Medical Oncology Service at MSK West Harrison.

Saigon,1975. North Vietnamese forces begin their final assault on the city. Chau, who is eight years old, will someday be a doctor in the United States. But right now, she and her older brother — the youngest of six children — are being taken to an orphanage by their father, an Exxon executive.
 
He and his wife are preparing a nighttime escape by boat and are worried that their youngest children may not survive the trip. By placing them in the orphanage, they are counting on the fact that Chau and her brother will be flown to the United States, as other orphans have been.
 
The children remain in the orphanage for two weeks until Exxon at last decides to evacuate its American personnel. Mr. Dang rushes to the orphanage to “adopt” his children and then they are off to the airport to join the rest of the family.
 
Today, Dr. Dang recalls their frightening exodus: “It was dawn when we walked onto the military plane. I could see the fear in the eyes of all the parents — and I could hear gunfire below as we took off. It was common for the North Vietnamese to try to bring down planes that were carrying those who were escaping.  But we made it. We made it.”

Cut to: A Cross-Country Odyssey

The family lands in Guam and are flown from there to California’s Marine Base Camp Pendleton, where they live with other refugees. “We had a grand time,” Dr. Dang recalls. “We were learning the life of the free world. This was my new beginning in America.” 

After several months, the family begins moving east, stopping for a time in Missouri and North Carolina and finally settling in Charleston, South Carolina, where Chau begins her education in earnest at Mount Pleasant Academy.  It is here that she learns the first of many important life lessons. 

“Back then they had something called ‘reduced lunch’ for families of little means,” Dr. Dang says. “There was also ‘free lunch’ and ‘regular lunch,’ and they’d call us in groups. As part of the reduced lunch group, I was in the back of the line — but I didn’t mind. I just thought, Wow. At least I’m getting lunch!”
 
This teaches her that “you have to earn your keep. You don’t have to be the best or the fanciest, you just have to work for what you want, be proud of what you have, and have a purpose in life. And you have to give back to help humanity.”

Cut to: The Road to Medicine 

Early in high school, Chau determines that she wants to be a physician. “I learned that the human body is such a unique, complex machine — a more complex machine than anything we can create,” she says.
 
After high school, Chau goes on to South Carolina’s Clemson University, then to the Medical University of South Carolina and Eastern Virginia Graduate School of Medicine. Finally, as an intern caring for a 37-year-old woman with metastatic breast cancer at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, the young doctor finds her true life’s calling. 
 
“My patient’s husband and three young children were standing beside her bed. They were going to lose their wife and mother,” she remembers. “It touched me profoundly and made me understand that cancer affects more than just the patient — it touches everyone around that person. I felt then that if there were something I could do with my career, it would be to go into oncology and try to find new therapies to extend patients’ lives and improve the quality of their lives. I also learned that we can find purpose in grief, and that it teaches you to make something positive out of loss and make things better for others.”
 
Another life lesson learned.

Cut to: A New Kind of Education 

Dr. Dang lands in New York City in 1996 to begin a hematology-oncology fellowship at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. Although she meets and works with “incredible physicians and scientists who taught me oncology,” she says her most profound education comes from her patients.
 
“If you just pay attention, who will teach you a better lesson in life than your patient? I’ve always held in my heart that I went into this field to be with patients, to take care of them. So when I’m with a patient, nothing else matters. I don’t look at anything else, not even a computer.”
 
Dr. Dang decides that she wants to specialize in breast cancer treatment and research. During her last six months at NewYork-Presbyterian, she does clinical rotations at Memorial Sloan Kettering, where she meets her future mentors, Clifford Hudis (now Chief of MSK’s Breast Medicine Service) and Larry Norton (now Deputy Physician-in-Chief for Breast Cancer Programs and Medical Director of the Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center).
 
The year is now 1999. Dr. Dang is invited to join the MSK faculty.

Cut to: The Present

Since then, Dr. Dang has flourished at MSK as both a clinician and a cancer researcher. In the past year, she was appointed Chief of the Medical Oncology Service at MSK’s newest suburban outpatient treatment location in West Harrison, New York.

“I’m from the community. I’ve lived in Harrison with my husband and son for more than ten years, and so it was just a wonderful opportunity,” she says of her new role. “MSK West Harrison is truly part of our MSK mission. In other words, whether we practice at a regional campus or in Manhattan, we’re all in the same family and have the same goals. MSK West Harrison extends the extraordinary work we’re doing at MSK to the wider world and makes it easier for patients to receive MSK treatment and expertise.”
 
Dr. Dang also pursues her research, which is aimed at putting together targeted therapies against the HER2 pathway in breast cancer in patients with metastatic and early-stage disease. “We’ve been fortunate that we’ve been able to discover important findings that have been research-changing as well as practice-changing,” she says. “For example, the widespread use and National Comprehensive Cancer Network [NCCN] endorsement of a dose-dense anthracycline-based regimen followed by a taxane combined with trastuzumab in patients with early-stage HER2-positive breast cancer was a direct consequence of a trial that I had the privilege to lead at MSK. The NCCN also endorsed a second treatment from another investigator-initiated trial that I led; this therapy involved dual antibody therapy with trastuzumab and pertuzumab against the HER2 target in patients with metastatic HER2-positive breast cancer.”
 
Whether it’s research or patient care, for Dr. Dang, it always comes back to the patients. “I’ve been privileged to have been given a second chance at life in America and to work with incredible, brilliant colleagues,” she says. “However, I owe my deepest gratitude to our patients. Allowing us to care for them and to do research through them for the greater good — because it’s only through research that we’re able to find better approaches for the treatment of cancer.”
 
“Embrace life. Work hard. Never give up. Help others in need,” Dr. Dang concludes.  
 
Lessons for us all.
 
Learn more about Dr. Dang and her work at MSK West Harrison by watching this short video.