Commencement Stories – Cassie Nguyen

Diagnosed with brain cancer at 16, she didn't let her illness rule her life

Cassie Nguyen will receive her bachelor’s degree in public policy from UC Riverside.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (www.ucr.edu) – It hasn’t been the easiest of rides for Cassie Nguyen. Looking at her now, her bubbly, contagious personality, ear-to-ear grin, light-hearted attitude and her strong desire to make a difference in the world would never lead you to believe she had cancer. And now, 10 years after being given the devastating news, she can say she’s a college graduate. She will receive her bachelor’s degree in public policy from UC Riverside on Sunday, June 14, a goal that’s taken her much longer than anticipated to reach.

Cassie was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor at the age of 16, and because of that, she didn’t get the typical high school experience. But even through her own suffering and pain, she was always thinking of others. A trait that she’s carried with her.

“I can’t imagine how hard it was for my mom,” she said. “Before we knew I had cancer, my mom thought I was unhappy, that I was putting too much pressure on myself in school. It broke my heart.”

Cassie was awarded the Marguleas/Weiman Humanitarian of the Year Commencement Award in May 2015.

Cassie was awarded the Marguleas/Weiman Humanitarian of the Year Commencement Award in May 2015.

She was a sophomore in high school at the time – taking all honors and AP classes, playing four sports, and participating in several clubs. Three months before the day she was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, she started experiencing symptoms. Vomiting, fatigue, headaches, double vision, sensitivity to smells. But no one could tell her what was wrong. It wasn’t until she went to see a neurosurgeon, who suggested Cassie get an MRI, that doctors finally figured it out – Cassie had cancer.

She gets emotional talking about her past and her journey. She tears up explaining how her mother tried to ease the pain.

“I had long, long hair, down to my waist,” she explained. “I remember the day it started falling out, my Mom wanted to be the one to shave it off. She came to my hospital room, and took a razor to my head. As I saw my hair fall to the ground, I just wept. I couldn’t stop crying.”

She was diagnosed on Feb. 10, 2005. Admitted to the hospital immediately, within a few days surgeons mapped out the procedure, and four days later, on Valentine’s Day, Cassie underwent brain surgery.

But as anyone who has experienced cancer themselves or has seen a loved one go through it, you know the battle doesn’t end after surgery. For a year and a half Cassie did not return to school. She was bald, in a wheelchair, couldn’t eat and had a gastrostomy tube (g-tube) inserted into her body. She was always in and out of the hospital receiving treatment, had shingles on the right side of her face, including her eye, and had to relearn many of her motor skills.

“I didn’t understand the extent of it all when I was first diagnosed. I thought cancer was something I’d go through, and I’d be back to normal right away,” she explained.

Finally, in September 2006, Cassie went back to school, and went back with determination. She wanted to walk, literally and figuratively with her graduating class. She took on the extra load of classes and ended up graduating with honors, in the top 10 percent of her class. On commencement day, she left the wheelchair, the leg braces and the cane all behind and walked on her own to receive her high school diploma.

“It was amazing, that was the only thing I wanted,” Cassie said.

Being diagnosed with cancer changed a lot for Cassie. She originally wanted to go to Yale, but then realized how important her family was to her. Having grown up in the Riverside area, she wanted to stay close by. So, she went to Riverside City College for five years, taking things slowly.

Cassie launched Spotlight on Hope, a free two-to-three-day filmmaking camp for pediatric cancer patients.

Cassie launched Spotlight on Hope, a free two-to-three-day filmmaking camp for pediatric cancer patients.

“I didn’t know what my abilities were,” she said. Her last year there, she started participating in activities the way she used to before her diagnosis. She found a new passion – advocating for health legislation as a young cancer survivor ambassador – and kept herself busy with many other activities as well, joining various clubs, participating in American Cancer Society’s Rely for Life, and interning with Inland Empire Magazine.

Cassie transferred to UC Riverside in fall 2012. At the same time, she continued her internship with Inland Empire Magazine, moving from an editorial position to a marketing one. While in that position, the company was in charge of promoting an independent film by Think Ten Media Group, and Cassie worked on that project. This inspired her.

“I learned the group worked with children, and taught film classes. This inspired me to want to start a film instruction class for kids who have cancer.” So, she did.

Cassie launched Spotlight on Hope, a free two-to-three-day filmmaking camp for pediatric cancer patients. It’s a retreat that gives these children the opportunity to write, act, film and edit a movie they create. She’s only been able to raise enough funds for an academic year of film camps at UCLA, but that doesn’t mean she’s not working toward being able to do more. She is working to bring the film camp to UCR and hopes to create a nonprofit that would expand the program nationwide.

 

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