In 2017, Ima Ebong, MD, became a mother for the first time. She just graduated from a four-year neurology residency program at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Hospital and was one month into a rigorous year-long clinical neurophysiology fellowship – the final phase of her medical education before becoming an attending physician.

It had been her happiest and most successful year to date, but everything changed in August 2017 when Ebong was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer at just 35 years old.

Going through cancer treatment with a newborn at home, Ebong continued with the fellowship and graduated in 2018. After that, she started her career at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine.

Today, Ebong is an associate professor in the UK Department of Neurology. Board-certified in neurology and clinical neurophysiology, she specializes in the treatment of epilepsy and neuromuscular disorders at the Kentucky Neuroscience Institute.

Now cancer-free, Ebong hopes her story will help spread awareness about colorectal cancer, especially to people who are disproportionately impacted by the disease. She shared her story with UKNow.

UKNow: What was your experience with your diagnosis and treatment?

Ebong: I had some weight loss and fatigue, but I thought it was just from being a new lactating mom and a fellow. The only concerning symptom I had was bright red blood in my stool. I still wanted a colonoscopy for peace of mind, especially with a family history of the disease (my mother passed away from it at the age of 54). However, as the first physician I saw thought that it was most likely hemorrhoids and mentioned that I wasn't eligible for screening due to age guidelines at the time. I had to advocate for myself to get a colonoscopy.

After the colonoscopy, the colorectal surgeon told me they discovered a mass that looked cancerous. I was devastated. I remember crying uncontrollably, worried about my 4-month-old son. Everything happened so fast – I had surgery to remove part of my colon that same week. Then one month later I began chemotherapy infusions every two weeks for six months. My last infusion was in March 2018, and I've been cancer-free ever since.

Now, I have annual surveillance visits with Dr. Reema Patel at the UK Markey Cancer Center and regular colonoscopies. Dr. Peter Hosein, my oncologist at University of Miami’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, actually trained Dr. Patel when he was on the faculty at UK. So there was a Markey connection in my treatment even before I came to UK.

UKNow: How did you get through it?

Ebong: First and foremost, I relied on my faith to get me through the darkest times. I prayed fervently for strength and courage to tackle this disease. I made the decision to treat cancer as just another part of my life, but not my whole life. I also limited who I told about my diagnosis, preferring to focus on getting better, my family, and my career. I continued my fellowship throughout treatment. I felt like it gave me focus and almost a sense of normalcy.  I think people diagnosed with cancer want to deal with it on their own terms. Everyone is different, and that is what worked for me.

My story is about overcoming challenges and cherishing life. There was so much I wanted to accomplish, and I wouldn't let cancer stop me. It pushed me to keep going.

Now, I feel like it’s time to share my story because I believe it can help others.

UKNow: What can people learn from your story? Why share it now?

Ebong: My story highlights the importance of screening, especially for Black people, who are disproportionately affected by colorectal cancer. And also for young adults, who are experiencing higher rates of colorectal cancer than ever before. Screening at 50 could be too late for many. The current, more aggressive screening guidelines are a positive step.

This experience has also made me appreciate life even more. After treatment, I had a second child, and I'm currently cherishing every moment of parenthood. It’s given me a second chance to just enjoy my son being a baby, which I lost somewhat with my first. I’m living life to the fullest right now.

I also want to emphasize the importance of survivorship – regular monitoring is key for cancer survivors.

UKNow: What advice do you have for people?

Ebong: Get screened early. Even before screening, watch your diet (fruits, vegetables, limit processed foods and sugar), and exercise – these are good for overall health but especially for colorectal cancer, which is linked to diet and lifestyle choices.

Be your own patient advocate. I knew my family history and still pushed for a colonoscopy despite not meeting the guidelines.

If newly diagnosed, just take a breath and listen to your doctors. Trust their recommendations for the best outcome for you and your family. Holistic medicine can be complementary, but evidence-based treatments are key.

Don't hesitate about getting a colonoscopy. The prep is easier today than it used to be. Don't let that stop you from getting screened and potentially catching cancer early. If they do find anything it will be early, and they can treat it right away during the procedure. A colonoscopy could save your life.