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Student Turns Personal Tragedy Into Life Purpose

First published in the July 30 print issue of the Burbank Leader.

By Natalie Miranda
Burbank Leader

In 2017, Anh Nguyen’s world was turned upside down — it was the year her grandmother, Phanh, was diagnosed with cancer.
Only a week after the 80-year-old grandmother’s condition was determined to be in Stage IV, she succumbed to the disease, devastating a young Nguyen from thousands of miles away.
Nguyen considered her grandmother, who lived in Vietnam, as a second mother. Prior to immigrating with her parents to the United States, Nguyen recalled often being under her grandmother’s care, which made her inability to return the same intimate level of care to her grandmother in her last moments through FaceTime all the more heartbreaking.
This event spurred Nguyen’s passion to be a source of comfort for those battling the disease that took her grandmother.
In her grandmother’s honor, Nguyen founded the nonprofit Cancer Relief Foundation and a club of the same name at John Burroughs High School in 2020. She said it took her some time to build up the strength to take action, but when she did, there was no turning back.
Nguyen’s organization provides financial relief as well as emotional support to cancer patients and survivors through care packages — to let them know that they are not alone on their journey.
“During the last day of my grandma’s life, I was not able to take care of her and that has left me with a lot of regrets,” Nguyen said. “So, when I do something for the cancer patients and those in the cancer community, it is a big comfort to me, because it makes me feel good knowing I can do something for others that I can no longer do for my grandma.”
Common items in packages include anti-nausea relief chews, essential oils, lotion and personalized notes, often handwritten to each patient. However, the boxes sent by Nguyen are packed with more than just objects, but also her love and compassion for a community that she is tethered to personally.
“Every time I see the smiles of cancer patients and survivors receiving their care packages, it fills me with a lot of joy,” Nguyen said. “It makes me feel like I found a purpose in life, and when I receive feedback from them, it really melts my heart.
“Although it might seem like I’m the one who is giving back to them, I feel like I receive more than I give,” she added.
Nguyen was recently awarded the STEAM Scholarship by the National Society of High School Scholars, or NSHSS, for her ongoing work with her foundation. The NSHSS honors students who embrace and celebrate STEAM — science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics — and thrive within it. Of nearly 800 applicants, Nguyen was one of 10 students selected to each be awarded a $1,000 scholarship.

A young cancer patient opens a care package from the Cancer Relief Foundation.

“Coming from a low-income, first-generation immigrant background, this scholarship is a big support of my academic journey and it allowed me to lighten up some of that financial burden off the shoulders of my hard-working immigrant parents,” said Nguyen, who is an incoming freshman at the University of Southern California, majoring in bio-pharmaceutical science with an emphasis in pre-medicine.
“Although this scholarship doesn’t cover everything, it is a reminder that there are some organizations out there ready and willing to support students like me,” she added.
Nguyen has met cancer patients who have died at young ages. She recalls a 3-year-old patient who died after she ran out of treatment options — prompting Nguyen to question what it takes to research cancer treatments that can one day make a difference and save lives.
This year, Nguyen participated in an internship working at the biomedical lab of professor Tsui-Fen Chou at the California Institution of Technology. Under the mentorship of Dr. Zhang Gang, the focus of her research was p97, a protein involved in biological processes like transcription regulation and the cell cycle.
The downregulation of p97 effectively suppresses the progression of tumors, making it a promising anti-cancer drug target, according to Nguyen.
During her time at Caltech, Nguyen researched the potential inhibitors of protein p97 through molecular docking, extracted the p97 protein from E-coli, searched for potential inhibitors and assisted her research mentor in testing different cancer agents.
The passion for the field of cancer research and medicine held by Nguyen solidified during her internship experience, where she delved deep into the field of study she is on course to pursue at USC.
Nguyen’s dream is to be a pediatric oncologist. She hopes to help as many cancer patients as possible — regardless of the title she may hold in the future.
“With all of these emotional connections with the patients, I just hope to be able to continue to stand by their side in the future,” Nguyen said. “Even if life has other plans for me, and I’m unable to become an oncologist, one thing is for sure: I will support the cancer community any way that I can.”
To learn more about the Cancer Relief Foundation, visit cancerxrelief.wixsite.com/cancerxrelief.

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