Ngozi Onwuchekwa radiates strength, resilience and passion for life, qualities that were forged in the fire of her battle with a rare and aggressive cancer. In 2020 at just 42 years old, Ngozi was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, one of the rarest forms of cancer. Over the next grueling two years, she endured intensive chemotherapy, debilitating side effects that left her emaciated and bedridden, and the crushing isolation of fighting cancer amidst a global pandemic.
Against all odds, Ngozi persevered. After being declared in remission in 2022, she emerged with a renewed determination to live life to the fullest. Just a year later, at age 45, Ngozi competed in her first ever pageant and won 4th place in the Mrs. Universe competition, also claiming the prestigious Mrs. Universe Exceptional Lady crown. She made history as the first cancer survivor to win the title.
Now cancer-free, Ngozi is writing a book about her harrowing yet inspiring cancer journey to offer support and guidance to others facing serious health challenges. She runs marathons to raise critical funds for cancer research and speaks openly about overcoming adversity to empower people to summon their own strength.
With unbridled optimism and courage, Ngozi is motivating countless people to embrace life’s beauty and potential – no matter the obstacles they face. Her uplifting story proves that with grit and grace, it is never too late to transform profound struggle into meaningful triumph.
When you were diagnosed with cancer at age 42, what initially went through your mind? How did you process receiving such devastating news?
It was a complete and utter shock. I always prided myself on being relatively healthy. So, this felt like it came out of nowhere. There was a lot of crying, and for a long time, I couldn’t bring myself to pronounce let alone research anything in detail about Rhabdomyosarcoma.
What was the lowest or most challenging point of your cancer battle, and how did you find the strength to keep going?
There were so many low points. From the feeling of isolation (as it occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic), the debilitating side effects, the pain and extreme discomfort. From being unable to walk far, eat, sleep, taste, and smell to the constant bleeding.
My mental health was severely affected, but at no point did I entertain giving up. I had so much to live for. My husband, siblings, nieces, nephews and close friends were praying for me. And I owed it to them to fight. A few of these things helped my mental health. For one, having a diary, taking on an MBA (master’s degree in digital marketing), and practicing gratitude anytime something good (no matter how small) happens. Not allowing myself to sink into a depression.
You competed in your first-ever pageant just a couple of years after facing cancer treatment and isolation. Where did you find the confidence and motivation to put yourself out there in such a bold way?
Something changed when I went into remission. I wanted to do anything and everything I was afraid of. As someone who lives in constant fear of cancer returning, I owed it to myself to celebrate each day.
I never thought I was good enough to be a pageant contestant. It seemed so far removed from my daily life. But, like many people, I watched the shows with so much admiration for the women who were brave enough to enter.
After seeing the Ms Universe contest on my Instagram feed, I thought, hey, why not fill out a form and enter, what’s the worst that could happen?
As the first cancer survivor to win the Mrs. Universe Exceptional Lady crown, what message do you hope to send to other cancer patients and survivors?
It wasn’t that long ago that I was emaciated, bedbound, weak, isolated, bald and very sick. Seeing myself on a world’s stage at Mrs Universe was an out-of-body experience I will never forget. To cancer patients, I say, keep fighting, even when you feel like giving up. Cling on to anything good or fun, no matter how small, to focus on. For instance, when I was sick, I could barely watch TV, but when I did, I only saw comedies. They made me laugh, and for brief moments they triggered endorphins that helped elevate the pain.
To cancer survivors, this may sound very cliche, but there’s so much truth to it. Treasure every day. Go for walks, call up an old friend, and do anything and everything that brings you joy every single day. You’ve been through a traumatic, life changing experience, now, you owe it to yourself to embrace life to its fullest.
You are writing a book about your cancer journey. What key learnings, advice or inspiration do you aim to impart to readers facing serious health challenges?
Knowledge is power, and the more cancer patients know about the physical, mental and emotional challenges the disease brings, the better equipped they will be to fight it. My book is also about sharing my story from the unique perspective of someone who fought this illness tooth and nail against the backdrop of a global pandemic. It’s a story of triumph over adversity, with lots of help and advice on how cancer patients and survivors can become more empowered.
What initially drew you to running marathons as a way to raise money for cancer research? How has preparing for races been part of your own healing?
Running may be a dull, repetitious exercise to many, but for me, it was always more spiritual. Every time I ran, I felt free, happy and mentally and physically strong. Not being able to run for years due to being sick was debilitating emotionally. Therefore, running to raise money for Sarcoma UK felt right to me. It was the only way I knew to regain my strength, and feel more like the old me whilst raising awareness and funds for others going through this cancer.
As a motivational speaker, what core stories or examples do you find yourself coming back to that resonate most with audiences?
From Adversity to Triumph is my story.
Going from a hospital bed to a world stage in a relatively short space of time.
Taking on an MBA from a hospital bed while undergoing chemotherapy.
Dealing with early-onset menopause.
Finding happiness after a hysterectomy for a woman who wanted to have children.
On difficult days, how do you continue to nurture optimism and courage even amid ongoing challenges?
Being in remission has many challenges. There are ongoing X-rays, scans, blood tests, and hospital visits. Not to mention dealing with the lingering side effects of the chemotherapy, early onset menopause and the fear of the cancer returning. It is a mind field. However, I get through it by surrounding myself with happy, caring people and through exercise. I also make sure that whatever I take on, be it work or play, fuels my creative spirit, nurtures my soul, and helps others in some way.
What message do you have for people facing major hardships that make you believe they, too, can transform struggle into triumph?
Be kind to yourself and remember that being challenged in life is inevitable, but being defeated is optional. Building your mental strength will help you develop the resilience needed to overcome adversity.