Young Ovarian Cancer Survivor Now Volunteering While Pursuing Medical Career  

Diagnosed with mucinous ovarian cancer at age 18, a week before her high school graduation, Chen Wen Ye was initially more concerned about her mother than herself. 

“I had some basic knowledge of cancer, and, after talking with my doctors, knew I’d be OK unless something awful happened,” explains Chen, now 23. “My cancer was much more devastating for my mom, because it’s something you can never imagine happening to your child.”  

In the end, Chen’s challenges as a young adult with cancer were far greater than she anticipated. She struggled with side effects, especially crippling fatigue, and while her family and her care team in the Gynecologic Oncology Program at Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center were extremely supportive, she had trouble explaining what she was going through to friends. Dealing with a disease usually diagnosed in older women, she often felt very alone. 

Now, as she nears five years of being cancer-free, Chen has committed herself to helping others facing such issues. Currently a senior majoring in Biochemistry at the University of Massachusetts at Boston (UMass Boston), she plans to pursue medical school and then a career researching and treating gynecologic cancers. In the meantime, as a member of Dana-Farber’s Adult Patient and Family Advisory Council (PFAC) and One-to-One Program, she is sharing her experience to benefit other young patients navigating college, work, and relationships around a cancer diagnosis. 

“We all have different stories, and different journeys, but we are still similar,” says Chen. “Through volunteering, I’ve developed an expression of how I want to share my journey to help others.” 

Chen Wen Ye was diagnosed with mucinous ovarian cancer at age 18 in June 2019, a week before her high school graduation.
Chen Wen Ye was diagnosed with mucinous ovarian cancer at age 18 in June 2019, a week before her high school graduation.

Chemo before college 

A native of China, Chen moved to Newton, Massachusetts with her mother and older sister at age nine. Her mother spoke little English, and with her sister off at college, Chen served as the family’s interpreter and bill-payer as a teenager. She still found time to excel academically, and was looking ahead to college and a career in science as her June 2019 high school graduation approached. 

Then, shortly after picking out her prom dress, Chen began having pain in her abdomen.  

“My belly got really big, like when you’re full after a big meal,” she explains. “I thought it was just digestion problems, but then I weighed myself and found I had gained almost 10 pounds in a week. That’s when we knew something was really wrong.” 

 Finally, when her abdominal pain and bloating worsened, Chen rushed with her mother to the emergency department at Newton-Wellesley Hospital in late May 2019.  

“As my mother held my hand tighter and tighter, the translator slowly told her the results from the test, along with the doctor’s assumption of cancer,” recalls Chen. “They referred us to Dana-Farber, where that assumption was later confirmed with the full name mucinous ovarian cancer.” 

Surgery was scheduled for a week later to remove a cancerous tumor the size of a grapefruit beside Chen’s left ovary, along with the ovary itself. She was able to attend her senior prom before the June 5 operation, but not her graduation two days later. Friends unaware of Chen’s cancer diagnosis texted from the ceremony, asking where she was.  

“I sat in my hospital bed, staring at my phone, not knowing what to say or text back,” Chen remembers. “It’s not that I didn’t want to respond, I was just not in the mood to discuss my cancer or my treatment.” 

Her uncertainty continued as Chen underwent six rounds of chemotherapy during the next five months. She felt largely isolated from the older patients she saw in the infusion clinic, and while she eventually did tell her friends about her cancer, they left for college shortly thereafter. Chen had to wait until the Spring 2020 semester, after her chemotherapy was completed, to start at UMass Boston. 

Post-treatment, Chen visited China.
Post-treatment, Chen visited China.

Mindful mentors 

It was about a year post-treatment, in mid-2021, that Chen began thinking about the next step in her life. Her own experience with a Dana-Farber Brigham care team including oncologist Rebecca Porter, MD, PhD, surgical oncologist Kevin Elias, MD, nurse practitioner Abigail Ciampa, NP, and social worker Annette Quinn, MSW, LICSW, served as a catalyst for Chen’s desire to enter medical school and pursue an oncology career. 

“I was going in every few months for check-ups, and my doctors were always great about asking me about school and what was going on in my life,” says Chen. “They would talk to me about me, not just my cancer. That’s the kind of doctor I wanted to be.” 

As a step in this direction Chen became involved with the One-to-One Program, in which Dana-Farber patients and families are paired by telephone with volunteer mentors who share experiences and advice gained from their own cancer journeys. Chen mentored a pair of fellow ovarian cancer patients, which further bolstered her passion for a medical career. 

So did 12 weeks working in a Dana-Farber basic research laboratory, which Chen did in 2021 through the Summer Program to Advance Research Careers (SPARC) — a collaboration between Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center and UMass Boston focused in early exposure to hands-on research training. She now plans to pursue both an MD and a PhD degree, and looks to Elias and Porter as a mentor in this pursuit. 

In the meantime, Chen is enjoying her volunteer roles. Since joining the PFAC two years ago, she has helped with council initiatives including improving the experience for bilingual patients reaching Dana-Farber’s call center, and the creation of a new lounge for patients active with the Young Adult Program

“Chen is a wonderful advocate for patients and families, especially other young adults,” says Victoria Baggio, MSW, program manager for Dana-Farber’s adult and pediatric PFACs. “She is always mindful to represent her experience and also thinks of others who might have different experiences. Chen adds laughter, brilliance, and insight to our adult PFAC, and we are lucky to get to work with her.” 

Such skills, Chen believes, will serve her well in the future. 

“I know what it’s like to be a patient, and I want to be a doctor who is able to talk to patients from mostly their perspective,” Chen says. “Hopefully, it will be at a place like Dana-Farber.”  

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