Catholic News Herald

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051217 familyCHARLOTTE — Mya McKenzie Nguyen, who has been battling leukemia for nearly six years, is hopeful she makes her first Holy Communion this month. Her parents credit their faith in God and his many blessings for the successes they’ve had in her treatment over the past few years.

Diagnosed when she was 3 years old, now 8-year-old Mya McKenzie has relapsed five times, trying experimental and other options to treat the cancer as it returns.

“Every time when we have our backs against the wall, God has always led us to a path for treatment,” her father Thanh Nguyen says. “Through all our hardships, our faith and trust in our Lord has seen us through, no matter how desperate it may have appeared at times.”

Thanh and Mya Nguyen are parishioners of St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Charlotte and their only child, Mya McKenzie, has attended St. Gabriel School when her health allowed. Other times, she’s been homeschooled. She has enrolled to start fourth grade at St. Gabriel in the fall, her father says.

“One prayer I had when she was first diagnosed, I actually asked God, ‘Please let me see the day my daughter would receive You for her First Communion.’ That year, that month, I ordered a First Communion kit that I recently gave to her,” Thanh says.

“With all the trials and relapses, I’m hopeful I’ll be able to see that first Communion five years later.”

Mya McKenzie was a healthy baby and young girl, until she developed a cough and was very weak, her father recounts. After repeated trips to the pediatrician and cough medicines that didn’t alleviate the issue, a blood test led their family to be referred to a specialist.

“She was diagnosed with precursor B-cell lymphoblastic leukemia,” Thanh says. “That was very devastating for our family.”

The diagnosis came in the spring. That Easter, a couple weeks later, Thanh recalls attending Mass without his wife and daughter, who were at the hospital for treatment.

“We rotated going to church. When I was at church on Easter Sunday, I really believe I received a special message from God that she would be OK and would be cured,” he says. “It’s a faith I’ve carried with me the next few years.”

Mya McKenzie’s first relapse was met with treatment options. She was fine for almost a year before her second relapse, her father says.

“After the second, we didn’t know what to do,” Thanh says. “The first thing we did was go to the Adoration Chapel at St. Gabriel Church, and we went there and prayed. It was really serious because it seemed to be aggressive this time. When we had our backs against the wall, all of a sudden we found this brand new treatment.”

Mya McKenzie was the first patient at Duke University Medical Center to participate in a then-new clinical trial which consisted of an adoptive transfer of T cells expressing chimeric antigen receptors. It’s a promising anti-cancer therapy, as the modified cells can be engineered to target virtually any tumor-associated antigen.

“It’s programmed to recognize a certain target. They grow enough of the cells, then re-energize the cells and re-fuse it back into your body,” her father explains. “We really felt it was a blessing for us to have this treatment option.”

Six months later, though, the leukemia returned.

051217 mya“The first thing we did was turn to God, again. We went back to the chapel and prayed about it. Every time we do that, we get really inspired. We got a sense of peace to be able to fight again to do whatever we need to do help our child,” Thanh says.

The doctors recommended a course of light chemotherapy while they explored other clinical trial treatments. From just the chemo, Mya McKenzie was quickly judged cancer-free again. Their family learned of this during Holy Week 2016.

“The next day, Holy Thursday, we found out my wife is a perfect match for a bone marrow transplant, which is rare,” Thanh says. “All of a sudden, she was cancer free and we had a perfect donor.”

Mya McKenzie received that transplant and all was going well again until last October, when the disease returned. This time, her family turned to the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Md., for another successful round of treatment.

“Even though it is a federal hospital, there was a stand-alone Blessed Sacrament chapel,” Thanh says. “I spent a lot of time there, praying for our child and giving thanks to God for this opportunity.

“My daughter has had more than four relapses, and every time we’ve felt there was nothing to do. There’s always something that’s come into our direction. Usually around Easter is when we get blessed.”

Mya McKenzie’s leukemia returned last month, and her family is back at the National Institutes of Health for treatment and they remain hopeful for positive results.

Mya McKenzie received her first sacrament of penance with her classmates and while she was in remission earlier this year, she attended classes to prepare to receive her first Communion. While she missed out on receiving the sacrament with classmates, her father says she is still expected to receive her first Communion later this month.

One the greatest assets through this whole ordeal, her father says, is that Mya McKenzie has been blessed with a special grace to handle the news as it comes and remain positive. She’s been known to even console her parents, he says.

“She loves to play doctor and is very observant. She helps the nurses. She’s very courageous and not scared of those things by any means. If it hurts, she cries, but she’s right back up smiling soon. It’s really amazing.”

Mya McKenzie says she hasn’t been scared because she has faith.

“God helped me – I felt Him with me when I was in pain,” she says. “I trust in God. I wasn’t afraid. I felt God was helping me. I’m never really scared.”

Her father hopes by sharing his family’s story they can inspire others dealing with hardships to put their faith in God.

“I want to convey all the times we were down and low, it was our faith and prayers and those praying for us,” he says.
“I really believe all the prayers from our families, friends and schoolmates and saints in heaven help. I think that’s how we’re doing so well.”
— Kimberly Bender, Online reporter