By Innocent Chia
Several months ago Eric Komfum told his physician “thanks, but no thanks!” after the surgeon told him to check into a hospice. “And what type of care do they provide there?” Eric inquired sarcastically from the MD, feigning ignorance. “Well, they are great at easing your pain and preparing you for death in comfort”, the MD said. Eric Tim Komfum, a Cameroon-American in his mid 40s who was diagnosed with a stage 4 colorectal cancer four years ago, is dangling on a cliff and fighting for life from death. But he is not only going counter-African-culture in breaking the silence about his disease, he has been courageously planning for a thanksgiving party a lifetime away on June 30th, 2012.
(Eric lost the battle very early this morning -June 5th - a day after we published this piece. But his war on health secrecy vs awareness is hopefully only getting started in many hearts and minds. RIP, Eric!)
“What is the thanksgiving party about?” I kept on asking under my breath even as Eric recounted his last ordeal; his brushes with death; the side effects of radiation and the chemotherapy drug abbreviated as 5FU. “The name (5FU) says it all – fatigue, flu-like, frail; frazzle; and fearful. Perhaps the drug makers should disclose what it really means”, he recently wrote in an email, with a sense of humor reminiscent of better times.
Eric and I have stayed in touch ever since he first emailed me over six years ago after reading one of my opinion pieces. If anything, I have echoes of him in my mind encouraging, motivating and cheering others to be the best they can be. Memories of those conversations with the bubbling entrepreneur are a night and day contrast to the Eric that can hardly hold a conversation for more than a couple of minutes on the phone because of shortness of breath and fatigue.
At 7:15AM, on May 7th I had received this text message from Eric – “Higher priority. Extremely important. Facing life and death situation from cancer. Please call me.”
I called him shortly after I got the message. His voice was faint, but his message was loud and clear. “I would like for you to write about my battle with cancer. Since the beginning of this year more than a couple of Cameroonians around me have been diagnosed with cancer and died. I believe one of the reasons I am still around is to share my journey”.
Mostly I listened to him talk. When I could speak, it was to share my admiration for what he was doing, which I consider a giganormous paradigm shift in that an African is willingly sharing about his malady with anyone outside close family circles.
Indeed, it is my deposition that there is a direct correlation between development and relevant health information sharing among members of any given society. In communities where members are secretive with their health information, chances for epidemics abound because each person thinks they are the only one suffering from the condition. The perceived singularity, where each person thinks that they are alone to suffer from the condition, also means that there is limited interest from the scientific world to find a cure in the absence of a critical mass.
The contrast couldn’t be louder in developed societies. At First Baptist Church of Elgin, Illinois where I worship, Church members often submit prayer requests based on health information that they share in great detail. Church members are able to specifically lift you and your condition to God in prayer because they know what the matter is. But there is also the fact that there is hardly any condition that afflicts only one person in the entire world. By sharing what the condition is, we increase the chances of getting help from someone who has either undergone, or is undergoing, a similar challenge and may know where or who to refer for help. From a development standpoint, the scientific community cannot research what it does not know about, or even begin to develop cures for the unknown.
It is within this context that one readily understands the enormity of Magic Johnson’s HIV/AIDS outing even as the pandemic was peaking and denial or ignorance were pervasive. He became the face of it, allowing millions today to accept their condition and seek help with the immeasurable support of family and friends. Even more important, the Magic Johnson Foundation for the Cure has been raising lots of money to sustain scientific research for a possible cure as well as for campaigns for the promotion of safe sexual habits. The point here is that even in their agony, heroes find a way to improve the human condition no matter what it takes. We have, in recent times, seen some selfless National Football League (NFL) athletes shoot themselves in the chest to allow the scientific community to study their brains in order to establish the effects of repeated head hits on the brains of football players.
Before wrapping up our conversation, my good friend gracefully visits my silent question on why this thanksgiving is as great as the second coming of Christ for him – “Innocent”, he says, “this thanksgiving service on June 30th is my testimony to the world that God’s verdict reigns supreme over human knowledge and medical practice”.
According to Eric, he and his beloved wife of 7 years, Gladys Musa Komfum – who he calls his “mentor”, “coach” and “care taker’ - “were pointed to Gods Plan (ALTERNATIVE TREATMENT PLAN)” after his Doctor had passed judgment for a death sentence in hospice care, where the average time a patient lives is less than six months. “I have beat death warrants due to God’s Plan Alternative Treatment”.
“Like every MD, my Doctor was informing his decision for my treatment based on history and statistics” Eric recently wrote me in an email. His conclusion was clear: God looks at us as individuals.
The history and statistics that Eric refers to are clear and disturbing for the African-American population for whom studies have been done. According to www.netwellness.org, “colorectal cancer is the second overall cause of cancer death in the US.” According to the American Cancer society, an estimated 145,290 new cases were diagnosed in 2005, and more than a third of that number, 56,290 deaths occurred. What to do if you are a black person? Screen for colon cancer and screen early at 45 years of age, 5 years before the recommended age for the rest of the population at 50. Always go for a second opinion and ask questions!
As I publish this piece, Eric’s condition is relapsing and there is general uncertainty: uncertainty about his chances of surviving and uncertainty about the Church service in Virginia. By the very least, I am appealing for us to individually organize and attend Eric’s thanksgiving party in our hearts, if something untowardly happens before the 30th and he does not make it. Let us organize this virtual Thanksgiving service to share in his story of resilience, share in his story of liberation from the stranglehold of health secrecy that has destroyed families across the world. Imagine how many people in Africa have died, and are dying across the World from Cancer like Eric, or HIV/AIDS for many others, because the families are denying reality and are running from shame and associated stigma. If nothing else, be part of the virtual Thanksgiving to support a fellow human being that believes in our common humanity, and in so doing pray for his wife, Gladys, and their six-year old daughter.