Alumni Spotlight: After Cancer, Patient Care is her Passion

December 6, 2013  |  
Chisa Echendu

Chisa Echendu

Chisa Echendu, MD, PhD – ’00 BS, ’06 MS in Chemistry

Dr. Chisa Echendu fell in love with biochemical research when she was a YSU undergrad. She spent countless hours behind a microscope, earned BS and MS degrees in chemistry here, then was accepted into a prestigious doctoral program in molecular virology and microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine, Houston.

But at age 26, midway toward earning her PhD, Echendu got some news that would reroute her career path – she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer.

At first, determined not to interrupt her work, she continued her studies and laboratory research through 10 months of chemotherapy, surgery and radiation treatments. “I saw no point to sitting around feeling sorry for myself, so I just kept working out, shopping, doing normal things,” she said. “When I lost my hair, I put on a fancy African scarf and people thought I was making a fashion statement.”

Echendu forged close friendships during that period with some fellow cancer patients she met at her Wednesday morning chemo treatments. The women laughed and cried together, gave support and encouragement.

“We were so close, we were like family,” she said, remembering how the women quizzed her about her research. “They wanted to know how the work I was doing would help patients, and that was a defining moment for me. That’s when I realized that, as much as I love doing research, I really want to translate what I’m doing to actual patient care.”

She survived the cancer – it’s been seven years – completed her PhD in 2008 and began medical school at Baylor later that same year. Now she has begun a medical residency in radiation oncology, also at Baylor College of Medicine. She expects to complete her training in 2017.

Instead of spending her life behind a microscope, Echendu now hopes to combine her research and patient care skills and to be at the forefront of diagnostics and therapy for cancer treatment.  “I’ve discovered that nothing compares to just talking to patients and telling them you can directly help them. It’s a tremendously awesome feeling,” she said. “Even if you can’t extend their life, just to be able to offer comfort is both humbling and inspiring. That patients will entrust their care to you as a physician is an exceptional privilege.”

A native of Nigeria, Echendu came to the United States for college at age 17, lived with an aunt in Cleveland and took classes at a community college. When a guidance counselor heard about Echendu’s 4.0 GPA, he offered to help search for a scholarship in a baccalaureate-level science degree program, and they found YSU’s University Scholar program. “I got accepted, and that’s how I got to YSU. It was amazing,” she said of the University Scholars program, which provides high-achieving undergraduates with full tuition, room and board for four years. “It gave me a chance to study and not worry about anything else.”

After earning her baccalaureate, she was awarded a graduate assistantship that covered the cost of her master’s degree at YSU and allowed her to continue her biochemical research on the herpes simplex virus.

While living in Youngstown and attending YSU, Echendu met her husband, Dike, also a Nigerian native and an accountant.  They have twin four-year-old daughters, Chloe and Camille – born during her second year of medical school – that Echendu describes as “very independent and strong-willed.”

She hopes to raise them, as her parents raised her and her siblings, with a strong, optimistic attitude. “I feel like I have a lot of things to offer the world, and I’ve been given second chance,” she said. “What I say to my children, I would also say to all the people at YSU, that anything is possible.”

(Previously Published in YSU Magazine, Fall 2013)