Kay Hsu Finds Hope Through Stage 4 Cancer One Milestone at a Time

Kay Hsu is the Head of Creative and Design at Facebook. She lives in New York City with her husband and infant daughter. 

I named my daughter, Freya, after my oncologist. And I think she saved our lives. When I told my doctor my fears about having a child, she was very encouraging. She was like, “You’ve got to have something to live for and have some purpose.” Having stage 4 cancer definitely puts everything into perspective.

I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in 2015. I was really surprised, to be honest. I only skipped probably one year of going to the ob-gyn in my life. I remember the year that I was diagnosed, I was taking a break with a co-worker who told me her New Year's resolution was not to let work get in the way of personal business. I always put work first, so she really encouraged me to skip a meeting and go to the doctor. That was the visit when my cancer was discovered.

I had a lumpectomy and then very quickly after that — I would say two or three weeks — I froze my eggs. I also threw in a wedding because it's not great to get married while going through chemo. Plus, I was advised by my fertility doctor to put a ring on him! I worked throughout this time, but I was very conscious to book my chemo on Fridays. I decided to tell everybody only because, if I put it out there, people would understand the journey and make accommodations without me having to explain. My hair was falling out as well, so I really couldn’t skirt around the issue.

I decided not to wear wigs throughout the process, mostly for practical reasons. I was going through menopause — because, you know, chemo kills your ovaries — and I was just so hot. I was not willing to spend a lot of money on a wig even though I'm sure I could have deducted some of it from my insurance. But it looked fake to me. I also think there is a lot of stigma for women going through breast cancer and I was trying, in my own way, to rally against that, because, hey, it's just a sickness. It's not anybody's fault! There's a little bit of sexism in it, too. No one's going around staring at bald men. A lot of women focus on their hair because it's an easier thing to control and face than mortality.

During my treatment, I also became a bit more conscious and interested in “wellness” — especially when it came to my skin. Up until the point that I started the treatments and hormone suppressing drugs, I used to just splash water on my face and think it was good enough. But now I’m like an old lady in a 42-year-old body. With radiation, which I did after chemo, you need to be so much more careful with your skin because it really breaks down the structure. Today, I'm really conscious of parabens and specific chemicals that can be in skincare products, but that aren’t really good for your skin and health.

For a while after I finished treatment, I didn’t have any evidence of disease. But, in 2018, I learned the cancer had metastasized into my bones. So, I'm kind of a lifer at this point. Now, I do immunotherapy and take one of the medicines for stage 4 breast cancer. There aren’t a lot out there because pharmaceutical companies don't really want to invest in someone they presume to be dying. Essentially, stage 4 cancer is not curable. It is what it is. Some people can live for a couple decades and some people don't. I’m just trying to make it to the next innovation. That's all I'm thinking about.

Through this experience, I have learned a lot about myself and the strength I am capable of to survive.

I’m not sure how long I’ll live but I hope it’s a long time. I mark milestones for myself so that I don't get overwhelmed. It’s about being self-aware of what I'm capable of, and what I'm not capable of, and also what drives me. I try to be a little bit more deliberate about the human aspect of working and really focus on how I can have an impact in people's lives.

After getting my stage 4 diagnosis, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to have a baby. I thought it would be just another thing on my to-do list. Also, I always thought having a baby would be more of a natural process, as in, we have sex and get pregnant. That was a defining moment for me and my husband, as a couple, to know that I wouldn't be the one carrying. I know a lot of women with breast cancer who still want to experience childbirth and they forge ahead. But we were a little bit more adamant about following doctor's orders, and we knew right away that we would pursue surrogacy. 

It happened so quickly. We matched with our surrogate after only a year of being on the list, and she was perfect. It was love at first sight. We became really, really good friends. She got pregnant at the end of January 2020, and we all decided that we would meet each other in real life after three months...and then the pandemic hit. We didn’t meet her until a week before she gave birth! But we chatted all day, every day on text.

We went out to Texas about a month before the due date to quarantine so that we could go to the hospital and be there with her. We spent a lot of time with her family — she has kids of her own — and got to know them. It was especially meaningful for all of us to have that time together.

Once Freya was seven days old, the minimum for a newborn to fly, we left. At that time, the numbers in Texas were rising so we thought, “We’ve got to get out of here.” Our pediatrician told us, “The most important thing is for you guys to be safe.”

There's so much happening in the world today. Socially, culturally — there’s all this really hard stuff to process in the midst of all of this turmoil that everybody's feeling, and that I'm experiencing myself. But motherhood has been extremely joyful. I am enjoying it so much more than I thought I would. Through this experience, I have learned a lot about myself and the strength I am capable of to survive.

Next Article

Related Articles