Honoring a woman of purpose
When Ify Nwabukwu came to the U.S. from Nigeria at age 25, her dream was to become a physician. She studied at several colleges, finally graduating with a degree in nursing from Howard University in Washington, D.C.
But her real career developed as the founder and leader of an organization that has boosted the health of thousands of African women new to this country. In fact, the impact she has had at the nonprofit she created may have far outreached what she might have accomplished as a doctor.
For her work, AARP awarded Nwabukwu a “Purpose Prize” in 2022. The $50,000 annual prize goes to five individuals over 50 who have solved a challenging social problem.
Launched by mother’s journey
While Nwabukwu was working as a nurse, she got married and eventually found herself juggling four young children and a full-time career. Her mother, living in Nigeria, came to the U.S. to help with the children on a temporary basis.
When her mother arrived, she found a lump in her breast. At first, she dismissed it as nothing more than a cyst. But as a nurse, Nwabukwu was concerned. Finding medical help for her mother — a non-resident with no insurance — was a challenge.
The lump turned out to be a cancerous tumor. Luckily, Nwabukwu had a close friend, a trauma surgeon, who performed a mastectomy.
She called on other connections within the medical community for additional care. Because she knew the system, Nwabukwu was able to save her mother and give her another 17 years of life.
However, Nwabukwu realized that her mother could have died had she not had help in navigating the U.S. medical system. That realization, plus the death from cancer of another African immigrant she knew, inspired Nwabukwu to take action to help other African women with cancer.
Overcoming a taboo
Nwabukwu explains that African immigrants not only face a language barrier. They also have a cultural taboo against discussing their medical troubles with others. This leads them to hide afflictions.
She began to seek out other African immigrant women, encouraging them to be open about discussing illnesses. She spoke to small groups and “influencers” at African organizations and churches.
At these meetings, she emphasized the need for women to speak up about their medical issues, seek care, and not feel ashamed if they have a health problem.
Over time, she established partnerships with doctors, clinics and hospitals — especially Howard University Hospital, “which has been most helpful and generous,” she said.
These efforts coalesced in 2004, when Nwabukwu founded the African Women’s Cancer Awareness Association (AWCAA), based in Greenbelt, Maryland.
“I was able to create this organization by engaging others. I started with the African community, then with the medical community, using all my contacts there,” Nwabukwu said.
AWCAA now helps an average of 2,500 women a year through breast cancer screenings, patient navigation services, support groups and online counseling. To date, the nonprofit has reached more than 30,000 people in the U.S. and Africa.
From translators to wigs
Nwabukwu, now the group’s CEO, believes the ability to be heard and to understand what medical providers are saying is key to empowering patients to face and treat their breast cancer.
So, first and foremost, the association provides translators and interpreters for its clients, and distributes breast cancer information printed in the 11 most common languages spoken in Africa.
Women who are referred to the program or who simply call for help are interviewed over the phone or in person, so they can share their history and their current situation. AWCAA’s staff, all of whom are African immigrants, make referrals and provide contact information.
If the patients need transportation, that can be scheduled. If participation in a clinical trial is appropriate, that can be arranged. Wigs and other patient supplies are available at the association’s Greenbelt headquarters. Throughout their medical journey, there will be someone at AWCAA for these women to talk to.
Is there one case that Nwabukwu feels especially proud of? She said, “A 38-year-old young mother came to us. She had never had a breast exam. Her early screening found a cancer, and [because it was caught early] it was treated successfully… This mother lived to raise her three children.”
Helping others makes us human
Nwabukwu said she wants people to understand these families and their culture. An African word, umbuntu, means “we are human only in relation to other humans,” she pointed out.
“As Africans, we believe in coming together to lift another person up. And when that person succeeds, they will lift others up…This is why AWCAA is here,” she said.
All of Nwabukwu’s work prepared her for dealing with her own diagnosis of breast cancer in 2016. Thankfully, her case was successfully treated.
Nwabukwu’s initiative has inspired others to start their own cancer and health education projects to help those in need. The Michael and Mauritia Patcha Foundation and the Saved by Grace Breast Cancer Foundation are two such organizations.
Her advice to others who have a dream, she told AARP: “Know your purpose. Look around you. When you see a need, ask yourself, ‘how can I help? What can you as an individual, as a human being, contribute while you’re here?
“Once you know your purpose, don’t be dissuaded by negative thoughts or concerns about how you can get it done. Go out and find ways to make it happen.”
Contact the AWCAA by phone at (301) 565-0420 or email at email@example.com. For more information, visit awcaa.org.