As she chuckled at the irony of the situation, Thuy Thanh Truong confessed her shock when she received the news in September of last year.
“I was like, what? How is that even possible? The person who goes to the gym every single day and doesn’t even smoke,” Truong said.
She initially went to the doctor for back pain and had planned a meeting later that day. Even after the diagnosis, she had no intention of missing it. After she presented, they spoke about moving forward with the project, but she trailed off, contemplating what she had just heard from her doctor: Stage 4 lung cancer.
Born in Vietnam, Truong immigrated to the United States in 2003 with her parents to pursue her education. After graduating from USC in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in computer science, she moved back to Vietnam against her parents’ wishes to continue her career as an entrepreneur. Now at 32, she’s already been deemed “Vietnam’s startup queen” by BBC and featured in Forbes Vietnam’s “30 under 30” list.
On the day of her diagnosis, Truong recalls speaking to her cousin, a surgeon.
“He said, ‘If you’re going to stay in Vietnam, you’re going to go for more procedures here,” Truong said.
She recalls how she replied decisively, “No, let me go back to the U.S.”
Two weeks later she was at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center in Los Angeles beginning her treatment.
“You just want to be at a place where you feel at home, and USC Norris feels like my home,” Truong said.
During her undergraduate career at USC, Truong founded Hackathon at the University of Science at Vietnam National University, an event for tech students to network and show off their app-building skills. After graduation, she went back to Vietnam and immersed herself in various business ventures to hone her entrepreneurship experience.
Today, Truong continues to formulate dynamic enterprises which make an impact while she undergoes treatment for lung cancer. She and Peter Kuhn, a USC professor of medicine and biomedical engineering, developed an initiative for another Hackathon, Hack for Health, this time with cancer resources in mind. She credits her motivation for the event to the uncertainty of what the future held.
“I used to spend two years developing an app, but I don’t know how much time I have left, so instead of developing 20 apps in two years, I’ll develop 10 apps in two minutes,” Truong said.
Truong is also working with a team of volunteers for her recent non-profit program, Salt Cancer Initiative, designed to bring support to cancer patients in Vietnam. The lightbulb for SCI went off while she was taking a yoga class during her treatment at USC Norris.
“When I first got diagnosed, I went to the class every week and got inspired by the teacher and the class,” Truong said. “I thought, I wish that they had a class like that for cancer patients in Vietnam.”
Today 100 SCI volunteers host monthly meet-ups throughout Vietnam for patients, weekly yoga classes at upscale fitness clubs and coloring, singing and drawing activities for children battling the disease in hospitals — each owned or organized by USC alumni.
With the average salary in Vietnam less than $2,000 annually, the membership fee to the fitness club where SCI hosts yoga classes for patients is higher than what most people can afford. Truong said she chose this club in particular not only because it was owned by a USC alum, but also because of its state-of-the-art facilities.
“It’s something very few people in Vietnam have experienced before,” Truong said. “Because they have cancer, we don’t know how much time they have left. They could have three months left, six months left, three years left. It doesn’t matter — I want them to experience something they’ve never experienced before.”
Truong’s roots are strong in Vietnam; after graduation, she returned to start her first company, a frozen yogurt shop. The shop lasted three years and expanded to five stores, but Truong eventually shut down the company, citing lack of experience.
Truong didn’t, however, let her first unsuccessful business run slow her down, and quickly switched gears to her next venture.
In 2013, she and a former classmate from USC developed GreenGar, a mobile application and development team that created the popular application Whiteboard, allowing users to work collaboratively from various devices.
GreenGar became the first company in Vietnam to be accepted to the 500 Startup Accelerated Program in Silicon Valley, but after a year of not being able to fundraise and scale up the business, Truong went back to the drawing board to start her third company, Tappy, a social messaging app.
Tappy quickly rose to success when it was bought by Weeby.co, a cloud-based game building software in Mountain View, Calif., for a seven-figure sum. Truong stayed involved with the company for more than a year before she became restless for yet another new experience. She decided to leave for a two-month solo road trip across the U.S., from California to New York, visiting national and state parks.
It was after the cross-country trip that Truong received her lung cancer diagnosis.
Truong is currently undergoing treatment for a target drug she qualified for after DNA testing at USC. If the drug is not effective, she will soon begin chemotherapy.
“I have the Trojan Family who support me in everything I do,” Truong said. “It’s a real family. Once you’re a Trojan, you’re Trojan for life.”
When discussing the fight ahead of her, Truong references the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who accomplished debatably his most esteemed work while being treated for cancer before his death.
“There are a few things that the world wants to have before they take me away,” Truong said. “I don’t know what it is yet, but I hope for the best.”