Patient from central Africa – Pain in right knee was sarcoma

He fled from a country haunted by racial tension. Even when there was little hope of furthering his education, he persevered. He moved to the United States to start a new life and now he is fighting to recover from a rare form of cancer.

There are many layers to Mukhen Tebong’s life. Just three years shy of 40, he could write a book that would make him seem twice his age.

As Tebong recovers in a hospital bed at IU Health Simon Cancer Center nurses Arra Schroeder and Aletta Royer hear him talk about a life far away from Indiana. The details are clear to social worker Janet Hoyer who has helped him navigate the path to recovery.

Tebong is no stranger to challenge. But the cancer in his leg is a different challenge. Now, he is unable to work. That reality may be temporary but every paycheck represents a mountain he has climbed. He is the primary breadwinner for a family that lives in Central Africa – a family that includes four brothers, two sisters and their children. He also has two young daughters living in Cyprus.

A native of Cameroon, Tebong learned early on the importance of education. His father was a teacher and had high hopes for his son who showed great promise and ambition in furthering his education.

“Life is different where I come from. There is extreme racial tension and marginalization,” said Tebong. “It doesn’t matter how smart you are, you still can’t get into the best schools.” After graduation from high school he completed the college entrance exam and had his sights set on a career in computer engineering. When he didn’t get into the university, he began taking computer classes and landed a job at an Internet café.

Racial tension and social exclusion in his country posed ongoing threats. Tebong feared for his life, so he left Cameroon in 2006, moving nearly 4,000 miles away to Cyprus. Four years later he was married and half way to a degree in nursing when pain in his right knee became unbearable. Doctors in Cyprus discovered the pain was caused from a giant cell tumor. Later he was diagnosed with Sarcoma. Surgery was performed to remove the tumor. Tebong completed his nursing degree but was unable to bear enough weight on his leg to complete his clinical work. A year later he had a second surgery to again remove the cancer.

Sarcoma is a rare form of cancer that attacks the bones and connective tissue. It’s not known what causes the cancer but some research suggests it can result from exposure to radiation or cancer-causing chemicals. There are fewer than 200,000 cases reported in the U.S. each year.

After two surgeries Tebong continued working and providing financial support to his family back home. Life was a continual adjustment. He lost both parents and due to the unrest in his homeland, he was unable to return for their funerals. He hasn’t been back to Cameroon in 13 years.

In April of 2016, he moved to Washington, DC – bringing his wife to live near a cousin and hoping for a fresh start in a safer environment. But the challenges continued. He couldn’t obtain a work permit for 150 days. Heartbroken over the separation from their young child, his wife left and returned to Cyprus.

“I asked where I should live to go on with my life. I wanted some place calm, no crime, no worries,” said Tebong. “Indiana” was the answer he received. So he moved to the Midwest and landed a factory job – again working to send money home.

“In August of 2017 the pain came back in my leg. It continued to get worse,” said Tebong. Dr. L. Wurtz, an orthopedic surgeon reviewed his scans. A biopsy showed the cancer had returned. It was October of 2018.

“They said I needed surgery again but I needed to work,” said Tebong. “Every time I got paid I was sending money back home. One sister has four kids; another has two kids. Her husband was shot dead at the age of 25. My brother’s business was burned. No one else could support them. It was up to me.”

But by March, it became impossible for Tebong to ignore the pain. He was admitted to IU Health for a third surgery to remove the cancer. Under the care of oncologist Dr. Daniel A. Rushing, he will continue with rounds of chemotherapy.

“I am where I need to be. I have been heartbroken. I have been afraid for my life and the lives of my family members. I know what it means to suffer,” said Tebong. “I do not know what the future holds but I know that God will put me where he wants me. Right now my life is focused on health, family and then money.”

— By T.J. Banes, Journalist, IU Health.
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