Stephanie Liang of the IPC meets with Ying Zhang and her family.

For seven years, conventional treatments kept breast cancer at bay for Ying Zhang* until a routine checkup found the cancer had spread to her lungs, lymph nodes and bones.

The cancer grew more aggressive, and eventually her physicians in China said there was no more they could do.

“I tried every drug available in China,” said Zhang. “When I ran out of options, I searched online and found a clinical trial at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center in Boston.”

She met the qualifications for treatment. Interested in participating in the trial, Zhang requested a consultation with Eric Winer, MD, medical oncologist and director of Breast Oncology at DF/BWCC. Zhang then faced the daunting task of leaving her home country to seek care.

With help from an English-speaking friend, Zhang emailed the International Patient Center (IPC) at BWH. The program’s staff provide a range of support services for about 3,000 international patients each year – spanning more than 120 countries – who come to the U.S. to receive medical care at the Brigham.   

The IPC helps patients navigate the health care system – assisting with medical records, billing, transportation and appointment scheduling – and the logistics of international travel. In preparation for Zhang’s upcoming visit, IPC staff also assigned her an interpreter and wrote an invitation letter she could present to U.S. Customs and Border Protection at Logan International Airport.     

The center’s multilingual, multicultural staff provides a single point of contact to assist patients before, during and after their visit, said Yawei Kong, manager of the center’s International Patient Program.

“Many of our patients have run out of treatment options,” Kong said. “I find my role very rewarding because we offer these patients access to potentially lifesaving treatments that aren’t available where they live.”     

Lifting Barriers

Two weeks after reaching out to the Brigham, Zhang settled into an apartment in Boston with her family. Her biggest concern about coming to the U.S. was the language barrier she would face. But with the help of IPC interpreters who translated interactions with her care providers, she said those worries dissipated.

There were also questions about the visa process. Zhang needed a visa extension several months into her treatment. The IPC helped her gather the required documentation for the renewal process, and an extension followed shortly thereafter. 

IPC staff work collaboratively across all departments to make access to care as smooth as possible for international patients, especially during what is often a stressful time in their lives, said Kerin Howard, director of the center. 

“Our main purpose is to help patients navigate the health care system, because the way health care is accessed can be very different depending on your country of origin,” Howard said.

Zhang says having her family by her side in the U.S. has been crucial as she weathers the emotional ups and downs of living with cancer. Equally meaningful is the compassionate, expert care she has received from her providers and the comprehensive support from the IPC. 

“I’m not fighting this cancer alone, and that’s made all the difference,” Zhang said.

*The patient’s name has been changed at her request.