man playing guitar with granddaughter

Bridging barriers to cancer care in Orange County's Vietnamese community

March 31, 2021 | UCI Health
Van Pham, a certified UCI Health nurse and translator, is the Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center's bridge to the Vietnamese community.

"I see myself as a patient's guide and interpreter — someone they can talk to and complain to, someone who will help them get through it — to be a shoulder to lean on," says Van Pham.
Photo by Michael Der


Van Pham, a licensed vocational nurse, had been the unofficial translator when Vietnamese patients with limited English language skills needed help at the UCI Health Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.

As the cancer center’s new nurse navigator and a certified medical interpreter, Pham leads outreach efforts to bridge language and cultural gaps that prevent some Vietnamese and other Asian patients from getting the care they need.

"Many older patients in the Vietnamese community and some other Asian cultures believe their cancer is a punishment, that they did something bad either in their present or past life," she says. "They often don’t want to tell their families they have cancer — at least in the beginning — and try to hide it. I try to alleviate their fears by explaining that it’s not their fault, that this isn’t the way the body works."

Familiar ground

A cancer survivor herself, Pham understands their concerns.

Her own cancer diagnosis came last year after she discovered a lump in her breast that was diagnosed as lymphoma. She went through five rounds of chemotherapy and felt lucky because she didn’t need surgery or radiation and didn't have any side effects from the chemo. Chemotherapy shrunk the mass and her most recent PET scan was clear.

"Many patients also fear chemotherapy because of hair loss and other visible side effects, preferring traditional treatment modalities that aren't effective," Pham says.

She once worked alongside a UCI surgeon whose Asian patient refused chemo and tried Eastern remedies instead. When the patient returned about two years later, her tumor was massive. That is what Pham and the experts at the UCI Health Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center want to avoid. 

"I explain to my patients the importance of getting proper medical treatment as soon as possible, rather than taking herbal medicines or relying on acupuncture, which doesn’t work to treat the actual tumor," she says.

Helping patients navigate treatment

Pham, 51, views her personal experience as a way to connect more deeply with her patients. And with 21 years of experience at UCI Health, she's definitely able to help them navigate the treatment process.

"When I was diagnosed with cancer, I thought of it as an experience," she says. "I know many people wouldn’t think of it that way, but I felt I could relate better to my patients. I could explain to them what to expect. It’s my mentality. That’s how I thought of it, so I didn’t feel depressed or scared."

A shoulder to lean on

Pham sees herself as someone patients can talk with and complain to, someone who will help them get through it — to be a shoulder to lean on.

"It is so hard for patients to hear the word cancer. I can tell them that I understand how they feel because I’ve been there," she says, "I’ve been through the treatment and I know what it’s like.

If you are a member of the Vietnamese community and are seeking information or assistance, Pham can be reached at 714-719-5612.

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