One of the reasons Fangjyh Chern loves photography is because it allows her to capture a unique moment in time. For her, the fun and challenge comes from photographing instances that can never be truly reproduced or recreated.
Since her own cancer diagnosis in 2014, Chern says she has had a heightened awareness of the moments worth remembering.
A cervical cancer diagnosis
Roughly six years ago, Chern, now 48, was diagnosed with stage IIB cervical cancer — cancer that had spread from her cervix to the tissue surrounding her uterus. She initially thought something might be wrong when she began experiencing irregular vaginal bleeding.
Her pap test and ultrasound came back normal, but the bleeding increased and became more frequent. She then sought out an OB/GYN (obstetrics and gynecology) specialist to conduct further testing.
This time, her tumor was discovered, having been located too deep in her cervix to be detected during the original tests.
“Hearing the news felt like getting a bucket of cold water dumped on me,” Chern recalls.
The Brookline, Massachusetts resident immediately began her treatment at the Gynecologic Oncology Program at the Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center. There, she was placed under the care of Panagiotis “Panos” Konstantinopoulos, MD, PhD, director of Translational Research in Gynecologic Oncology.
Initially, Chern underwent a combination of chemotherapy and radiation. The grouping is the standard treatment for cervical cancer, and the goal was to cure Chern of her disease. However, less than a year later, a routine scan changed her trajectory.
In 2015, Chern learned that her cancer had metastasized: It had spread to her lungs. While this discussion was life changing, Chern says it was the conversation that came next that stuck with her.
“I am not a very positive person, but I have a lot of confidence in Dana-Farber,” explains Chern. “My team was very optimistic and hearing them lay out how they were going to treat me influenced my attitude and made me feel more positive.”
Chern once again began treatment, cycling through different therapies to stay one step ahead of her cancer. This included being placed on an immunotherapy clinical trial in 2017, to which she responded positively. However, the following year, she needed to be taken off the trial when it was discovered her cancer had spread to her brain.
“I was really scared that day, but I knew I had to quickly pull myself together,” says Chern. “I knew I needed to stay rational and look at things in a positive way.”
In a matter of days, Chern underwent surgery followed by radiation (the standard of care for brain tumors). Since her original surgery, Chern has undergone two additional craniotomies (brain surgeries) along with maintenance therapy to treat her other areas of disease. While she has needed multiple surgeries to address the reoccurring cancer in her brain, she has remained stable everywhere else.
For years Chern has also been seeing Ilana Braun, MD, chief of the Division of Adult Psychosocial Oncology at Dana-Farber. While Chern had depression before her cancer diagnosis, she had never met a psychiatrist she truly connected with until working with Braun. She says something just “clicked” from the moment they met.
“She is a truly remarkable person, and wherever life’s journey takes her, she manages to find the beauty in it,” says Braun.
Overcoming cancer her way
With Braun’s help, Chern explains, she has been able to address and work through her biggest fears. This has allowed her to focus more energy on the things she is passionate about, specifically traveling and photography. In 2018, she showcased her photography work in an exhibition in Charlestown, Massachusetts, calling it a thrill that she never dreamed she’d be able to do.
“For me, winning against cancer means it doesn’t stop me from enjoying my life,” adds Chern. “There are always unexpected events, and cancer is just one of them. Instead of worrying and moping around all day, I want to get out there and experience the wonderful things in life awaiting to be discovered.”