Fighting from the front lines

I’m always on the lookout for inspiring stories about cancer: patients, survivors, battles won, valiant fights fought. This story found me, via the local newspaper last week, and it’s been on my mind ever since. I am bowled away by this woman. Her attitude is nothing short of fantastic, and her drive to make a difference in the “war on cancer” is inspiring, for sure. Because I’m juggling 4th grade homework on units of measure and a 7th grade study guide on Texas history with the usual chores, animal herding, and the ever-elusive hunt for something healthy/yummy/pleasing to 4 different palates before another weeknight at the baseball fields, I’m going to just relay this story simply and without a lot of editorializing. You’re welcome.

Chisa Echendu had her eye on a doctorate in medical research from Baylor College of Medicine, right here in good ol’ Houston. The 32-year-old Nigerian native had every intention of spending her career in a lab, peering into a microscope and solving medical mysteries.

But then the doctor became the patient as she found a lump in her breast in 2006. At age 26 and halfway through her molecular virology doctorate, Chisa was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I didn’t think it was serious,” she said. “I was 26, I didn’t have a family history. I was busy in the lab, busy with publications.”

Cancer, however, has no regard for one’s schedule, plans, hopes, or dreams. Chisa learned this first-hand. After her diagnosis, Chisa’s professors suggested she put her studies on the back burner while she faced chemo, surgery, and radiation. But Chisa said no. She was determined to make sure cancer didn’t steal everything from her. She remained resolute in her goal of finishing school, and her attitude is inspiring. She said, “I didn’t want a pity party, I just wanted to be like everyone else and take care of my business. People go through more challenging things in life. I had hope to get well, good resources, good physician tools. Some people are worse — without anything — and they just keep going.”

Instead of feeling sorry for herself or asking “why me?” Chisa not only pushed through the endless parade of problems one confronts with a cancer diagnosis, she refocused her goal. After enduring endless doctor’s appointment, multiple body scans and medical tests, chemo brain, recovery from surgery, and fatigue from radiation, Chisa decided to get out of the lab and fight cancer from the front lines as a radiation oncologist. So after 4 years of med school, she will take on another 5 years of training to help others on this wretched cancer “journey.”

Being a young breast cancer survivor filled Chisa with “more of a sense of urgency” in pursuing her goals. “I feel like I’ve been given a second chance. There is no time to complain or make excuses. Like everyone who goes through difficult times, you gain more strength, a sense that you can accomplish anything you want to do.”

With 2-year-old twin daughters at home and a lot of schoolwork ahead of her, Chisa is proving that she can indeed do anything she wants to do. What an inspiration.