Denise Ejoh: Building a Thriving Cancer Awareness Community

Denise Ejoh: Building a Thriving Cancer Awareness Community

Dr. Denise Ejoh is the CEO of Cormode Cancer Foundation, an NGO championing awareness on cancer.
Having lost her mother to the same disease and as a cancer survivor who tenaciously fought the ailment for five turbulent years, she birthed CCF with the aim to build a thriving cancer awareness community across Nigeria using experienced medical professionals in different facets whilst ensuring the key change drivers are cancer survivors. In this virtual interview with Rebecca Ejifoma, she shares her experience and plans for CCF

Denise Ejoh (PHD) is the founder and CEO of Cormode Cancer Foundation (CCF). As a survivor of the disease with long term treatment plans, Denise works with a directorate team to create and champion Cancer Awareness in Nigeria.

According to information on its website,
CCF aims to reach out across Nigeria and bring together experienced medical professionals in different facets whilst ensuring the key change drivers are cancer survivors, with the need to build a thriving cancer awareness community,

Ordeal with Cancer
Since her diagnosis in 2016, Dr. Denise Ejoh, the CEO of Cormode Cancer Foundation (CCF) willfully rolled up her sleeves to help other cancer survivors realise that cancer brought them to their feet not knees. She narrated: “I was diagnosed with cancer in 2016 and I already just had my mother die of cancer. I was less than 50 years old and didn’t know what I was going to face, especially as I still had a child going to JSS2.

“That tells you already that for me I understood I may or may not make it. It had to bring home a lot of realities ranging from what could happen if I didn’t make it, and if I was going to fight the journey, how was I going to go about it. Was my personal and spiritual innermost side of me going to carry me through the journey knowing full well that the journey on this cancer route can be quite hard,” she soliloquised.

As her ordeal became a wild reality, the soft spoken CEO began to lose her hair coupled with two brain surgeries with cuts and excess. She also had nine tumors removed from her brain. “I still take chemo because I have to get past it to be able to live,” emphasising, “I had a HER2-positive diagnosis of a brain metastasis which means that the cancer had moved.”

Her diagnostic journey, in her words, was anything but pleasant, a memory she never wishes to relive. From the perspective of first knowing she had cancer she got her head grounded. “I have very strong Christian values; they helped me because I was very quick to accept what would be. So, I turned and said something very clear to my head. I looked at the walls and cried out just like Hezekiah in the Bible because I had a child under age 12.

“So from there we had to do the first surgery, which I reacted to. I didn’t know that’s the standard: my head swelled up, it was twice its current size because of steroids (I had five tumors removed in two different operations within six months) between August and December. I started chemo in January 2017.”

At one point, Ejoh, who was an educator until the illness, couldn’t walk very well anymore. Although she came out of that, she was still on active treatment. “After six months, the tumors had grown again. I had to have another surgery called the Gamma Knife and had another four tumors removed from my brain”.

In 2019, Ejoh’s world came crumbling, as the cancer grew yet again. To weather this storm, she had to eliminate it. “Throughout this period I learnt how to manage food, eat whatever you can, you can’t because of treatment, not eat specific foods because your taste buds are very wide.

“You have a metallic taste for some people. Lots of things are not just right. You don’t like how you look. You don’t like how you feel. You’re quite sick a lot of the time, but at the end of it all having a positive mindset was one of the things I strongly had going for me and I went for that.”

Power of a Positive Mind

Honestly, she acknowledged, a positive mindset is the only way out. Her reasons are not unconnected to the fact that as a cancer patient there will be good times and bad times, you live in a lot of pain, you lose friends along the way, people don’t associate with you, you really don’t know who is with you anymore. Hence, “My goal is to touch even if it’s one life it’s enough, that’s ready to fight and live”.

Mental Health and Chemo Every Three Weeks

Despite employing optimism, Ejoh couldn’t comprehend how she fell flat into the traps of mental health. “After the phases of all the terrible parts of it, I got almost five year long and found that I faced a lot of mental health counselling.

“The rule states that most people don’t cross five years. And for someone like me who takes chemo every three weeks for the last five years I started to think maybe I wasn’t going to cross the line. Going through all of that, the emotional roller-coaster and all having to now learn to put a few things and having to understand that I have to take care of myself.”

Forced Retirement upon Diagnosis

Unfortunately, Ejoh was made to take a bow from the stage of teaching. “I was forced to retire immediately I was diagnosed with cancer. I’m a teacher and educator and you can’t go to school and say you’re going for treatment every two weeks or every other day; it’s not possible.

Changing the Narrative

Following the involuntary retirement, the teacher had to learn how to change my lifestyle to make sure life was worth it. “And CCF has filled that vacuum because now I’m able to use the journey to reach out to people who are going through it. I talk them through why they need to follow the medical diagnosis and advice, seek and understand there’s a mental part that comes with it.

“They have to understand when to stop listening to negativity and focus more on positivity, understand that whatever the journey is we have to remember we will not, we cannot get past this journey without knowing what we want to achieve and not knowing that we are not on this journey alone. We have each other and we will cross it eventually.”

Birth of CCF

Consequently, her agonising ordeal in the cold claws of cancer paved the way for CCF in 2019, which consciously took effect in 2021 during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in memory of her late mum, who died of breast cancer. Its fundamental goals included creating awareness on cancer from the perspective of a survivor.

According to the founder, CCF came about because of her experience. She recalled: “My mother died of cancer and I then went through the journey of cancer. Cormode is my mother’s middle name and she was one of the staff of Queen’s College.”

Ejoh admitted that she and others have come from a place of experiencing the cancer journey as against the medics telling them everything.

She emphasised: “So basically I’m not a medical doctor, I’m an academic. However, it comes from me as a person who has lived with cancer for over five years, with a diagnosis of breast cancer metastasising in the brain, and still remaining in active treatment – I still have chemo every three weeks.”

At CCF, there is a series of cancer awareness programmes ranging from its zoom titled, “Let’s Talk about Cancer”, where the CEO speaks to people of different backgrounds, all the different varied roles or organisations that are influenced by cancer. “So a cancer patient experiences from the diagnostic, mental health to the treatment plans all the way to whether we make it or we don’t make it,” she expressed.

Today, the NGO has a social media presence and a YouTube channel with videos of different discussions they have had over the last one and half years. It continues to create awareness to nurses, patients, medics, everyday family, and friends.

Ejoh, like many other Nigerians, are not oblivious about the World Health Organisation (WHO) statistics showing that breast cancer is currently the most common type of cancer worldwide, with 2.26 million cases recorded in 2020 (WHO, 2021) and 14,274 deaths recorded according to a Globacon survey in 2020. Hence, her drive to power more Enlightenment campaigns.

Truth for Survivors

For the CCF boss, going on this journey meant automatically she needed to start the foundation. That was because she wanted to help people understand that cancer can but doesn’t always have to be a death sentence. Also, she wants to help people see the ability to be resilient but always seeking medical advice along their journey.

“Then I realised very quickly that cancer is a form of stigmatisation which people run away from with cultural backgrounds telling us, ‘It’s not my portion. God forbid and all that kind of stuff and also understanding that if we didn’t accept the fight to cross the line we were more likely never going to make it.

“So coming from that vision I create awareness on all cancers. I’m not a specialist, I refuse to be. I just create awareness by trying to tell people to do their tests, do what you’ve got to do, go to the doctor’s. I’m not saying you shouldn’t trust God because I strongly trust God in everything I do and I actually make that very clear every time. But I’m also very realistic so please try not to give up.”

Funding, Sponsorships

In its partnership, CCF is now trying to create a digital awareness. Early this year, the foundation says it is seeking funding to get billboards in every state.

“We are collating all the government centres in the country that have facilities for cancer patients because we don’t have enough in Nigeria. I think we’ve now got a machine, a few scanning machines that can help but they’re far between each other.”

According to the CEO, they are currently working with their partners to find the names of all the private hospitals that have the equipment. “However, we are also very mindful that there are less than 100 qualified oncologists in Nigeria and we have a population of over 200 million.

“So we are aware of the challenges and we have to be honest. We have video recordings in Igbo, Yoruba, and Hausa for cancer. There’s another for breast cancer and we are trying to get more for prostate cancer because those are the three main ones in Nigeria. Unfortunately we can’t get men to do that but hopefully we will find that.”

While noting that this year they are sure to get every cancer translated in Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa languages into radio space by the end of the year, Ejoh highlighted that they are making small and steady strides as a small NGO.

Part of their quest is staying focused on their primary goal which is cancer awareness. In her words, they are trying to develop a partnership with BDVH to get an app where if you’re not well you can go through a link, tick some boxes and it can navigate you to the nearest hospital to get help if needed.

She emphasised: “We want to make sure we get more people hearing the messages through different strands of the cancer journey not just oncologist but the surgeons, patients themselves, survivors like me, families of survivors, oncology nurses, mental health doctors, cancer doctors (if we can get the communities) to start making sure the narrative is the correct one and stop the negative narrative, so we want to push the positive narrative this year.”

Ultimately, Ejoh hopes to go above the 20 minutes programme every two weeks. For her, if they can get 20 minutes of awareness every week on television channels in the country, then cancer would be brought to the forefront. “That will make my year. That’s my wish list,” she divulged.

Activities for World Cancer Day

As the World Cancer Day is observed every February 4th, CCF has lined up a lot of activities from the World Cancer Day programme organised by AIT which is with the president of Bioventure Global Health. “We have two oncologists, Aina Shigaya and Dr Jumita Tuku who are both oncologists. They will participate in the discussion and the survivor.”

Access to Cancer Treatment

But for access to treatment as a dual national in another country, Ejoh said she would be gone by now. According to her, treatment for the brain surgery “One costs 10,000 pounds per shot which was my laser tumor removal, the Gamma Knife.

“The chemo was very expensive at the time I started and I’m changing to a new drug because as the drugs wear out a new drug has to start when the tumor starts growing and that’s a risk I have to live with. So the cost of the treatment as I stand to tell you can’t be less than 100,000 pounds that will be the minimum.”

Signs No One Should Ignore

It started with a persistent headache. “I had been going to quite a few well-known hospitals in Minna, Niger State because I used to work in Minna at the time. Nobody could tell me what was wrong. When I got diagnosed that was because the doctor insisted that since he couldn’t find anything wrong with me, they should do a brain scan for her headaches.”

Having gone to the UK to get treated, Ejoh called on everybody including cancer patients to get medical help. “If you’re sick, I emphasise it all the time – basic diarrhoea can be colon cancer, constipation can be cancer, headache can be brain cancer, a lump in the breast can be breast cancer – just get it checked.”

Although she cautioned that cancer at stage one and two tend to be curable, she listed yearly checks, monthly checks, biennial checks for people to go for. “Some checks are specific for women, for men, for children, vaccinations, everything that’s basic everyday life. Don’t take them for granted because those are what will get us through and I’m an advocate for all of them. I’d rather try than not try at all, and lose because I didn’t try at all.”

And in line with the theme for this year’s World Cancer Day, “Close the Care Gap” Ejoh and her team at CCF are passionately bridging the information gap just to stunt all forms of cancer.

“We want to make sure we get more people hearing the messages through different strands of the cancer journey not just oncologist but the surgeons, patients themselves, survivors like me, families of survivors, oncology nurses, mental health doctors, cancer doctors…”

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