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Survivor joins the fight for children with cancer in Vietnam

Michael R. Doyle (C) and two young doctors at the Children's Hospital No. 2 in Ho Chi Minh City who have been helped by the Kids With Cancer Foundation to study in the US. PHOTO COURTESY OF KwCF

Michael Doyle settled in Vietnam in 1992 at the age of 39.

The American had done well for himself since. For the last 15 years, he has been Chairman and CEO of the Indochine Food Group Ltd. based in Ho Chi Minh City's Binh Thanh District, bringing in products from America and Europe like ice cream, tea, wine and coffee to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

Five years ago, his life was turned upside down when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, "incurable at stage four."

Despite his sickness, Doyle has been continuing with his life and work, letting nothing keep him down, keeping the struggle going strongly, never thinking about death.

"The doctor said I would live less than five years, but that five years came and went in July and I'm still alive.

"Part of it was because I used the newest drugs, newest treatments in the US, and the other was because of my attitude," said Michael, who looks quite well for a patient in the last stages of cancer and even quite young for a man at 60.

While his fight with cancer would, by itself, be quite a story, it would not be as amazing and meaningful as the one that tells what Doyle has done during the last two years to bring advanced technologies and treatments from developed countries to Vietnam to help the little kids who are also living with cancer through his Kids With Cancer Foundation (KwCF).

"The whole point of our work is to change the five-year survival rate of kids having cancer in Vietnam, which is now less than 10 percent," Michael said.

 "Adults understand cancer. They understand the pain that they go through, like I go through everyday," he said, pointing to the pain in his back, where he just had a surgery, which makes it difficult to sit comfortably.

"But the little children don't understand why they have needles in their arms and have to have blood transfusion and pain everyday."

At the beginning, he started to give free ice cream, one of his company's products to some hospitals in HCMC, with a very simple thought to make the kids feel better.

Every month, he gave away thousands of dollars of ice cream. Then he realized he has not been doing anything to help them.

"To have a free ice cream doesn't change anything. It makes them feel good for ten minutes, it doesn't change their lives."

After learning "a big thing;" that "children's cancers are mostly curable", he decided to work on a new strategy.

In the US, 95 percent of the children having cancer are alive after five years, according to a recent study of the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. In Vietnam, with the current treatments available, 90 percent of the kids with cancer die after five years, which is "a complete opposite."

In February 2012, Michael began to raise funds for his foundation, aiming to change the system of treating cancer in Vietnam by training the doctors, and bringing to the country the latest protocols and treatments available in America and Europe.

He first called for help at some renowned cancer institutes in the US such as the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and MD Anderson, but they turned him down, saying they were not interested in supporting Vietnam's kids as there were many other countries in need of help.

Luckily, the doctor who treats and takes care of him in the US became director of the University of Texas Cancer Center and agreed to support Michael and KwCF

As a businessman with an MBA from the J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management, Northwestern University and a Masters of International Accounting from the Swinburne University in Australia, he understood how to formulate and implement a business strategy, and applied it on the way he runs the charity: making it small and focused.

He and his team decided to carry out the program only in southern Vietnam, specifically working with the Children Hospital No.2, the Oncology Hospital and the Blood Transfusion Hospital, the three places that treat children with cancer in the South. 

The first team of children cancer specialists from the University of Texas Cancer Center came to HCMC last July to see what needs to be done and also taught a course on leukemia blood cancer treatment and for doctors at the three hospitals.

Three months later, the foundation sent the first Vietnamese doctor from the Blood Transfusion Hospital to the US for studying more about blood cancer treatments.

Until now, it has brought four other groups of doctors from Texas to give lectures and conduct training courses in Vietnam at different times, sent seven doctors to study in Texas, six other doctors to Singapore for a blood cancer conference and four more to Bangkok to join a conference on tumors.

Money for these activities have come from fund raisers that Doyle has organized, starting October 2012 when a gala dinner helped him collect $125,000, of which he gave $20,000 to another local cancer charity foundation. Over the last twelve months, his foundation has raised around $200,000.

"Michael has become a bridge for us to have doctors study in the US, something that we all want to but always found hard to do," said Phu Chi Dung, director of the Blood Transfusion Hospital.

"He came to us because we are the only one hospital in southern Vietnam that focuses on blood treatment. So far he has helped four doctors of our hospital to study in the US for around one to three months, and is about to send one more doctor. For the first case, he paid for all of the expenses but not the flight ticket, and then for the last three cases, he paid everything," said Dung.

So far, his foundation has focused mostly on blood cancer, the easiest to cure, and solid tumors, but now he is working on brain cancer, the most difficult one to deal with, so that next year, he can send some more doctors to the US to study available treatments and their prognosis.

Doyle's foundation is also working on other two projects, one being the children's cancer palliative care unit at the Oncology Hospital; and the other a pediatrics bone marrow transplant unit at the Blood Transfusion Hospital.

The palliative care is for the kids in the last stages of cancer. "It is very painful when you die of cancer and I believe that to die without pain is a human right," and this project will help them with their pain, and even if they die, they would die pain-free," said Doyle.

Pediatrics bone marrow transplant is a special therapy for patients with cancer, especially blood cancer. It involves taking cells that are normally found in the bone marrow (stem cells), filtering those cells, and giving them back to the patient they were taken from. "If you can change the blood in your bone and make it healthy, then you can go back and fight cancer," Doyle said.

The three hospitals at the beginning did not support his new strategy for treating children with cancer "because most people try to help the patient directly, to cure some specific boy and girl. They didn't believe me. They thought I was just some stupid foreigner with some stupid idea.

"My strategy is not to cure the kid directly. Although when I work through the hospital, I wanted to save them all, what I have done so far in the last two years has not helped any child now.

"But I have to make that decision. I would rather change the entire system forever. I want to raise the survival rate to over 15 percent in five years, so I'd rather save a thousands kid every year."

It was very hard decision to make because people still come to him and ask for help specifically with their children. He has tried to help some children that way sometimes and have some people volunteer with him. Then their kids die, and they do not want to work with him anymore.

So he is keens on changing the way the doctors work and as well as the treatment system they deploy.

"There is nobody who's healthy who would think of this idea. You wouldn't open a cancer charity because you don't know anything about it. I've been through every single moment that these kids go through. I understand the pain that they have and it makes me work a lot harder."

Nguyen Thanh Huyen, one of the Vietnamese volunteers who is on the board of advisors for KwCF, said: "Michael is a very optimistic man, who always knows how to make things simple and has a special love for the kids having cancer. It would be much easier if he just gives the kids ice-cream or cookie every month, but he chose the hard thing to do as a way to express his belief in life.

"After each of his treatments, he goes back to normal life right away with works, exercises, and the KwCF. If I were in his situation, I think I could not be that optimistic, enjoy lives or sacrifice for the kids like what he has been doing."

Michael married a Vietnamese woman after he found out he had cancer. He now has a beautiful family with two and a half-year-old twins - a son and a daughter.

"I asked my doctor one day how I'm gonna die and he said: you go home, sit on your couch, you give up, and die, so I did the opposite: I keep myself busy, go back to school, run my business, travel with my family, do exercises and start my charity, do everything and for many days, I forget that I have cancer," he said.

Every three months, he goes back to the US to have his treatments done. He reports to his doctor in the US almost every day and always keeps himself informed of the latest drug in the field.

He has lost ten kilograms and all of his muscles have gone but lately, he has started swimming and is planning on lifting weights, something he has always done before being sick.

If something were to happen to him, the foundation's work would continue and the Texas cancer center would stay with it," he said.

But, he added: "I do not plan to die soon. I have fought with this cancer for five years now and I didn't give up. I have a plan with my doctors and my medication. I step from one drug to another and sometimes the drugs only last four or six months and they're very expensive.

"To be honest, I have many advantages that many people don't have. I have a good insurance policy, it pays for a lot of my treatments, and a good doctor in the US. In Vietnam, Thailand or Singapore, unfortunately we don't have the good medicine as I took. My wife takes good care of me and my kids are really nice. They know that daddy has a bad back and still wait for the day I can carry them, cos right now I can't.

"But it also the attitude that helps. My doctor even dropped me an email recently saying that he think sattitude has played an important role in keeping me alive."

There is one thing exemplifies his attitude. 

Every morning he wakes up at 6:30, looks at the sky and tells himself "˜What a great day.'

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