If she had faced cancer in her home country, Wossene Bowler knows she would not be alive today. For most people there, a cancer diagnosis is essentially a death sentence.
The Ethiopian-American decided to make the most of her personal “second chance” at life and built a nonprofit organization to bring contemporary cancer care to Africa’s oldest independent country.
There is only one cancer center in Ethiopia, a country with 80 million people, and Tikur Anbessa Hospital has extremely limited resources. Ethiopia is one of Africa's poorest states, with only one doctor for every 40,000 residents. The economy revolves around agriculture; the country is one of Africa's leading coffee producers.
Bowler moved from Ethiopia to the United States in 1980. She graduated from the California Institute of Arts, studied in the master’s program and moved to Singapore with her husband. A cancer diagnosis brought her back to California for medical care in 2000.
Bowler had developed a rare blood cancer, chronic myelogenous leukemia. (Also known as chronic myelocytic leukemia) Her treatment included chemotherapy and a life-saving bone marrow transplant at the City of Hope Hospital. Bowler said this was one of the most difficult times of her life.
After the transplant and recovery, she returned to Ethiopia to be with family and make good on a promise. During her treatment, her parents asked friends and church members to pray for her recovery. They also promised, if she recovered, to take her to churches throughout Ethiopia to share the story of her faith and “God’s hand in caring for her” during her illness.
For two years, Bowler lived with no recurrence of the leukemia, however, some of the donor cells had not fully grafted during her transplant and the disease returned. At this point a revolutionary oral form of targeted drug therapy was available to treat, but not cure, CML.
For a while she was depressed, but that changed. “I suffered for a few weeks but one morning I snapped out of it,” she said. “It was clear to me then, I survived for a purpose, and that is to do good and to pay back what I received from the people who helped me.