Alumni Resource

A Tradition of Surviving




Tu ne choisis pas,

Tu ne sélectiones pas,

Tu n’épargnes même pas

Les personnes déjà assailli par la corruption,

La pauvreté, la famine, et bien d’autres difficultés.

Tu n’as tout simplement pas de pitié!

Néanmoins, en dépit des maux qui affecte ma nation

Nous te défierons,

Parce que survivre est notre devise!


While cancer may be far from defeated, we can certainly defy it.   We can beat the odds.  After all, over the millennium we have survived its malignant brothers and sisters, tribalism, war, poverty; we have even defeated its cousins poliomyelitis and malaria.   In fact regardless of the challenge we are facing, we can become survivors.  I know because I have survived civil war, poverty, and a school with classes of 100 students. That is my story and certainly the most essential message I will convey to my patients once I become a doctor

I am originally from Cameroon in Central Africa.  I was blessed with an opportunity to pursue my studies in the US after high school.  Most of the 120 students in my middle school English class wish they had had the same opportunity as I.  They also wish they could enjoy the same medical care I have here.  However, they don’t understand yet that while they may lack most of the advantages that western societies enjoy, the greatest strength of a Cameroonian is our ablility to defy and survive, which we do daily. 

James “Rhio” O’Connor was a long-term survivor of malignant mesothelioma.  Diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma in October 2001, he was given less than a year to live.  Neither surgery nor chemotherapy were treatment options because the tumor lay near his spine.    


Mr O’Connor, my fellow Cameroonians and I share the same survival instinct.  In fact, all humans have that instinct. The key is whether our life stories and backgrounds, give us the opportunity to use it and strengthen it.   Let’s examine the disease that taught Mr O’Connor the algorithm of surviving. 

Mesothelioma is a rare and virulent form of cancer that affects the mesothelium, a sac-like membrane that covers most of the internal organs.  The membrane is made of two tissues of cells.  One is very close to the organ while the other forms a sac around the organ.  When the cells of the mesothelium become malignant and divide without control, they invade and attack the nearby tissues and organs they cover, making mesothelioma one of the most virulent forms of cancer.

This cancer is often difficult to diagnose because its symptoms look like many other conditions.  However, a history of exposure to asbestos in 90% of the cases, in addition to a physical examination followed by an x-rays of the chest or the abdomen makes up the first part of the diagnosis.  If the results show an increased suspicion of mesothelioma, a scan or an MRI and biopsy are needed to confirm the diagnosis.   Once diagnosed, the usual survival period for patients is about one year.  

There is no algorithm, not even in western medicine, to counter-attack cancer.  Each case is unique and each patient has to find the game plan that fits best.  This is at the basis of surviving.  I remember when I was trying to come to the U.S. six years ago.  I knew exactly what I wanted: to study medicine in an American university while playing basketball, and to become a pediatrician.  The goal was there, the dream was alive, but I had no game plan.  My family had lots of love but no money for me to achieve my dream.  However, I had one set of skills.  My game plan started with basketball.  I made a video to send to some coaches in the hope of a basketball scholarship.  Six years later I have my bachelor degree, I had a successful college basketball career and I am starting medical school shortly.  But every day is still a survival contest.

James Rhio O’Connor’s story is significant because he developed a game plan that let him survived his prognosis by seven years, whereas only 10% of patients live up to five years using Alimta, the most up-to-date antifolate which combines chemotherapies.   Instead of letting the disease control his life, he created his own active mesothelioma treatment plan with the help of professional clinicians: his game plan.  Then he had to learn and master the qualities of a survivor.  I often listen to a CD that emphasizes the 7 laws of success, and the first one is knowledge.  To plant a nail in the wood, you have to make sure the nail is sharpened.  Knowledge is the tool that sharpens the nail of success, success in reaching any goal.   Mr O’Connor understood that and spent countless hours in libraries, and talking to experts.  He laid the foundation of his success.

He followed the traditional medical protocol.  But he also decided he could not just rely on western medicine; he had to develop a broad active plan, one that would improve his physical and mental health.  He explored and combined holistic medicine, which is still shadowed by fear, doubts, and skepticism due to the western medical establishment.  Unfortunately, fears and apprehensions often paralyze us and prevent us from exploring beyond our comfort zone.   We always face risks, but in most of my quests, the experience was worth taking the risk.  Moving to the US at 20 even though I never been out of Cameroon before was totally worth it.  Starting a non-profit organization at 22 and returning home every summer to hold basketball camps for Cameroonian youths with the risk of being denied re-entry to the U.S. as happened in 2008, was once again totally worth the experience I had with the kids at the orphanage.  Each time I left Orlando International Airport, I was haunted by fear.  But I took the chance.

Another key in Mr O’Connor game plan was flexibility.  He had to adapt as cancer adapted.  In addition to consuming over 100 vitamin supplements per day, he adjusted to a strict diet while maintaining a positive mental attitude.  He treated his mind and body.  By combining strategies, he strengthened them.   When the Cameroonian basketball federation asked me to play for my country while I was finishing my immunology and Spanish courses, I thought playing in the Pan-African games in the middle of the semester might affect my studies.  Instead it helped improve my work ethic.  My professor arranged for me to take classes and exams online and my fellow Cameroonian Indomitable Lionesses encouraged me to study while they would go explore the streets of Rwanda and Madagascar. 

Probably the most important quality Mr O’Connor developed was perseverance.  It is the key to success.  Stories of long term cancer survivors like James Rhio O’Connor show that a prognosis is not a “death sentence”; life can be extended beyond the verdict of western medicine when it is combined with alternative medicine.    From my perspective, this is now understood by many health care professionals.  In fact, when you search the web for medical protocols for cancer, the results show many clinics that combine western and alternative medicines.  I was exposed very early with cooperation between western and folk medicine back home.  I remember when my brother suffered from typhoid fever, the doctor himself referred us to a traditional healer to get a potion that be combined with western drugs.  My treatment for anemia was a combination of western drugs and a concoction of leaves from different tropical fruits made by my grandma.  More and more doctors will probably join this pattern once the FDA approves alternative therapies.  The challenges are the cost and complexity.  Imagine the difficulties in collecting the medicinal knowledge my grandma inherited from her parents, organizing it and testing it for a FDA approval.  My generation has shown computer networking can expand and improve everything from scholarly research to interpersonal relationships.  Why can’t we use this power to simplify the FDA approval process for alternative therapies?

On July 2009, Mr O’Connor passed away after he published a book entitled “They Said Months, I Chose Years: A Mesothelioma Survivor’s Story,” where he engraved for ever more the legacy of a warrior.  The way we defeat any opponent is by using all our resources against it.   The more resources we can align against mesothelioma or any other form of cancer, the more quickly we will defeat it.



By: Ines Teuma Nguimfack