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Breast Cancer Patient Relocates from China for Treatment

When Ying Zhang, a Chinese civil servant, decided to pursue breast cancer treatment in the United States, she faced the daunting task of leaving her home country.   

When there are no more drugs to try

For seven years, conventional treatments kept breast cancer at bay for Ying Zhang* until a routine checkup found the cancer had spread to her lungs, lymph nodes and bones.  

“I tried every drug available in China,” says Ying. “When I ran out of options, I searched online and found a clinical trial at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Center in Boston.”    

Ying Zhang relocated to Boston for cancer treatment at The Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Center.

With help from an English-speaking friend, Ying emailed the International Patient Center (IPC), a program at BWH for patients seeking treatment from countries outside of the U.S.

She requested a consultation with Eric Winer, MD, a medical oncologist and director of Breast Oncology at the Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Sorting out the logistics  

Ying met the qualifications for treatment. Two weeks after contacting Dr. Winer, she settled into an apartment in Boston with her husband, daughter and son.

The IPC prepared her itinerary, assigned a translator and helped make financial arrangements. To prepare for U.S. Customs and Border Protection at Logan Airport, the IPC wrote an invitation letter for Ying.  

The staff of physicians, interpreters and patient navigators also helped coordinate logistics, such as appointment scheduling, medical records, billing, travel and living arraignments.   

Not long after relocating, Ying and her husband were sitting in Dr. Winer’s clinic with an IPC interpreter by her side translating the conversation.

More than a diagnosis

For Dr. Winer, it’s essential to forge personal connections with patients such as Ying.

“We talked about my life before we discussed my cancer,” says Ying. “Dr. Winer was friendly and patient. I knew I was in good hands.”

Ying was also impressed with the professionalism and effectiveness of the International Patient Center. Without the IPC’s staff, her and her family would have been lost, she says.

Giving her worries to the doctor

After bloodwork and examinations, Dr. Winer began administering a HER2 antibody-drug conjugate once every 21 days.

Ying rested between treatments. After several days of fatigue, she and her family toured Boston. The pleasant springtime weather allowed for leisurely walks through Boston Common. They ate familiar foods in Chinatown, shopped on Newbury Street and went on a Duck Tour. 

When her condition worsened, she worried. Dr. Winer said, “Give your worries to me.” He told her to take care of her body and try to relax. Eventually, her condition stabilized.

The challenges of receiving treatment as a foreigner

Ying’s biggest concern about coming to the U.S. for treatment was the language barrier she would face. But with the help of IPC’s interpreters who translated interactions with doctors, nurses and specialists, her worries were relieved.

There were also questions about the visa process. Ying needed a visa extension several months into her treatment. The IPC helped her gather the required documentation for the renewal process, and an extension followed shortly thereafter.  

There were medical bills and living expenses, of course. Ying’s insurance didn’t cover international health care expenses, so she paid out of pocket.

Differences in health care between China the U.S.

Ying notes the differences between U.S. and Chinese health care systems. “In China, we spend a lot of time standing in lines to see a doctor,” she says. “At Brigham, we scheduled appointments ahead of time and knew exactly when we would meet with our provider.”  

Ying also notes that the Hospital provided a more peaceful atmosphere for healing. For instance, blood draws took place in a quiet, private section of the hospital, which was unlike what she has experienced back home.  

A long road, but not a lonely one

Ying’s recent scans showed improvement, but with metastases in her lungs, bones and brain, she’s prepared for a long battle.

“Dr. Winer told me that we can’t cure my cancer, but we can manage it like a chronic condition. I accept that reality. More drugs may come along in the future as well,” says Ying.

She admits that receiving treatment in a foreign country has been challenging. She hopes that sharing her experience will reduce learning curve for other patients seeking health care abroad.  

Having her family by her side has been crucial as Ying weathers the emotional ups and downs of treatment.  

“I’m also supported by the ICP’s incredible staff and an exceptional team of doctors. I’m not fighting this cancer alone, and that’s made all the difference,” she says.    

*The patient’s name has been changed at her request.

Learn more about how to become a patient at The International Patient Center. 

- By Dustin G.