More than three decades ago, when Yvonne Liu learned she had breast cancer, she was shocked. She had no idea that Asian American women could get the disease.
Yvonne was at home when she first discovered a lump, and her husband, Bill, insisted that she get it checked out. At first, her doctors thought the lump might just be a benign lump because she had fibrocystic breast tissue. As an adoptee, she didn’t know her family history of the disease, and since she was so young, she didn’t expect it to be cancer.
Two days after she got a needle biopsy, she got the call. It was breast cancer.
“I just sobbed and sobbed,” she said. “I couldn’t believe my ears. I was only 29 years old. I didn’t have children.” She couldn’t help but think, “Would I become infertile?”
The diagnosis also made Yvonne feel lost and alone. Since she didn’t know anyone who had had breast cancer, she didn’t have anyone in her community that she felt she could turn to. At the time, it wasn’t easy to find research on breast cancer (and it was still limited then), and she didn’t have the Internet to search for answers to the questions running through her mind.
On the top of that list was what her treatment would look like. Her first thought was to get a mastectomy, but her medical team let her know that the latest research supported her getting a lumpectomy with a combination of radiation and chemotherapy. So, she did just that.
Her treatment wasn’t easy, but she was grateful she had the options and care that she did and that her initial infertility fears weren’t realized. She went on to have three children: two daughters and a son, all in their 20s now.
“When I gave birth to my first child, it was an emotional moment. She was my first blood relative. I realized because of research, they were able to determine the right drug for me, and I was able to have a child,” she said.
Yvonne went through her diagnosis and treatment quietly and only told a small circle of people. She urged her Asian American mother and mother-in-law to get mammograms. Both women had never done so before. As a result, her mother-in-law discovered she had breast cancer. Thanks to Yvonne, she got treatment.
But at the time, Yvonne wasn’t ready to tell a wider circle, and she feared how people would treat her.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer among Asian American women and Pacific Islanders—but, devastatingly, AAPI women are less likely to get breast cancer screenings. AAPI women also more commonly have dense breasts, which can make detection more difficult, and they have higher rates of HER2-positive disease, which can be aggressive. The reasons for these disparities range from lack of access to misconceptions about the disease.
Yvonne remembers talking with one friend in her community who had been diagnosed, who said her neighbor would not speak to her after she got breast cancer.
“There has been Asian American shame and stigma about cancer,” she said. “Maybe if I had shared my truth years ago, I could have encouraged women during that time to get their mammograms.”
More recently, Yvonne was getting lunch with a friend who said she wasn’t getting a mammogram. Yvonne decided it was time to open up about her experience widely.
“When she said, ‘I never get my mammogram.’ I paused and I said, ‘If not now, when.’ So, I revealed it to her. And I thought, ‘Why reveal it to just one person,’ so I helped to organize a breast cancer community talk at my church,” she said.
Looking back, Yvonne, who is now 63, said she questions why she was ever ashamed or embarrassed.
“I think part of it is this model minority ideal,” she said. “If you’re the perfect, hard-working minority, you don’t want to appear imperfect.”
Yvonne also started writing about her experience with breast cancer, and her 2021 NBC News article about keeping it a secret received an outpouring of love and support from friends and strangers around the world—some of whom mentioned they were going to get screened because of it.
“I felt so gratified that people were reading this, taking action, and sharing it with the ones they love,” she said. “They say, ‘Yvonne, you’ve given us a voice. Thank you for writing what I couldn’t express.’”
Yvonne feels so grateful that her writing has inspired others—she’s now working on a memoir—and she credits research for making it possible for her to do so.
“Research is the reason I’ve been able to live a full life and fulfill my dreams,” she said. “Breast cancer research is important for the future generation. My daughters have a genetic predisposition from both sides. It’s only through research that hopefully more lives will be saved.”
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