Ify Nwabukwu: from Pain to Purpose

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Ify Nwabukwu, Founder and Executive Director of the African Women’s Cancer Awareness Association and now the latest recipient of the 2022 AARP Purpose Prize turned pain into purpose. This interview details her journey and her hopes to give women everywhere hope, even when they face something as grim as a cancer diagnosis.

What inspired your current mission of reducing the burden of cancer in African immigrant women?

“My mother came to visit me and she was diagnosed with cancer while visiting. She didn’t have insurance and neither did I. My best friend, a trauma surgeon at the time, said “Let’s see what we can do to get her treated”. My mother wasn’t killed by cancer initially, but 12 years after her diagnosis; my best friend was also diagnosed with breast cancer. They both died one year apart. Those two women, who meant so much to me, drove me to do this work.

Early detection increases your chances of survival. Don’t wait until something is going on to get screened.

Is this a second career for you? If so, can you describe your earlier career path and your decision to reenter the workforce again?

“This is a second career completely! I’m a registered nurse by profession and worked early on at an ICU, rehab centers, and retired as a school nurse. It was my personal experiences and own life that pushed me towards the work I do now. My biggest joy in life is someone completing their treatment and saying “I’m cancer-free”.

Cancer does not discriminate.

Cancer does not discriminate. It affects us all in the same ways that inequalities and disparities impact immigrant populations. There is a lot of paperwork and there is a large burden of proof. I understand that these facilities often need proof to be able to offer services and treatment. But it’s often these little things that create unnecessary delays in access to healthcare or navigating the system.

When you’re diagnosed with cancer, any delay causes more damage.

When you’re diagnosed with cancer, any delay causes more damage. A lot of my job involves creating basic awareness. Most of the time, women have never been screened in their lives and there is an emphasis on not getting screened if nothing is wrong.

Why is this work important to you and why should it be important to others; what motivates you to keep doing this work?

Ironically, I was also diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016, but I caught it very early. Because it was genetic, I opted for a double mastectomy and after two infections I ended up losing my left breast. For whatever it’s worth, I see myself as lucky…it has strengthened me and given me the resolve to continue fighting for women who have not been as fortunate as I have been and to continue to do more research.

What does winning the AARP Purpose Prize mean for your work?

I’d like to thank AARP, it’s humbling to win this award. It means a lot because there are women who are not able to get insurance. We often have to pay for them to get screened. Institutions like Howard University Hospital and Georgetown help us bring in women at no cost, but sometimes they don’t have coverage. We also pay for procedures like a biopsy and retesting.

Winning the AARP Purpose Prize also means we can pay for rent for some of our clients. Sometimes seeking treatment means a patient has to stop work, others may lose their jobs completely. We just assisted a patient that underwent plastic surgery with rent. It’s things like that that this award has helped us to do. It’s just a wonderful blessing! And since COVID, we have also been very involved in providing PPE to patients and organizations and supporting and buying groceries.

Aging with attitude means, you’re no longer afraid. 

What does ‘aging with attitude’ mean to you?

Aging with attitude means, you’re no longer afraid.  I am looking back at all I’ve learned throughout my journey and planning my legacy, how I’d like to be remembered. If I can leave a smile on someone’s face, then it’s all worth it.

Sometimes we are so afraid to be human, to try new things. Whatever I can do to be healthier, wiser, stronger, then that’s what I want to do.


Photo Credit: Howard University Hospital Cancer Center, at a Rosemary Williams Mammoday event in 2014.

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