By Chioma Obinna
One nation! The woman’s outburst generated interest. Indeed, few wondered aloud what she was on about.
Then she explained. “I refer to our breasts as one nation since most of us have lost one breast to breast cancer.”
The explanation of the woman, who is in her early 50s, triggered another round of jokes. Gathered at the venue were about 35 women – all breast cancer survivors. They were there for their monthly Support Group designed to increase the support network of the people in the group, and also a healthy resource for breast cancer survivors to cope and heal in the recovery process following diagnosis and treatment.
It was during the February support programme put together by Care Organisation Public Enlightenment, C.O.P.E last week in Lagos, that some of the women shared their experiences with Good Health Weekly. For these women, cancer has opened a new chapter in their lives.
Each woman told her story about cancer. Various questions were asked. How will I overcome the difficulty of undressing in the presence of my husband? One woman asked.
“I no longer enjoy sex.“You should feel free to enjoy sex. Make the best of your time. Don’t allow depression to set in because it is the greatest enemy to cancer patients. If I can get a man to marry me after losing one breast to cancer, you can do it.” Another responded.
It was significant the women had an understanding. One nation may mean to an ordinary person as ‘unity” or a country’ but to them, it meant a different thing.
These were women who had lost one or both breasts to breast cancer. In their midst, one would begin to realize that cancer is not a death sentence contrary to the picture painted, books read and stories heard about the Serial Silent Killer, SSK, disease.
Through cancer, God gave me a 2nd chance – Della, survivor, 4 years breast cancer
One of the women, 53 years old Mrs. Della, who came all the way from London to attend the support programme and also donate prosthesis bras to the women said living with cancer does not kill you but the chemotherapy treatment does.
“When I was told I had cancer, I was not afraid because I had little or no knowledge of the disease.
I was having pains in my breast so I decided to visit the hospital. Then, I thought it was the white people’s disease until I was diagnosed. I was due for a wedding in Nigeria then, so I was more occupied with my plans to come to Nigeria and not losing my ticket money which I had paid. I wasn’t afraid because I never knew what cancer was then.
“When they said they were going to cut off the breast, I responded that they should cut it and let me travel for the wedding. The surgery was successful and I came to Nigeria for the wedding.”
However, reality dawned on Della when she started chemotherapy. It was then she knew that cancer was not child’s play. “Chemo is the killer. Chemo was when I knew I had cancer. I was on my own.”
Temptations and challenges
Della, who lamented the many temptations and challenges she faced recounted: “When you have cancer people will run away. There will be nobody to stand by you. I did not have a support group to see black people having cancer before I now started DDS Cancer Support Group strictly for black people. Then, I wanted to see how an African survives cancer. It was difficult.
“I was the only black person among all the white people. Since then I have been making noise for the need for support group for people with cancer.”
Della who described cancer as a lonely and painful journey added that individuals cannot do it alone. “Sometimes you just want someone to be with you, to talk to, but people don’t understand. I was so depressed which is the effect of chemo. Cancer is nothing but the treatment of cancer that is the real thing.
“Even after cutting my breast I met someone and we got married. It is the experience of the chemo that kills people. It is not just the cancer itself.”
One thing Della said cancer did for her was that it made her aware of healthy living.
“Today I feel good, I am now looking after myself. I am now conscious of myself. I now exercise. Even one of my sisters in London told me cancer ‘did me good.’ It is like a new chapter in my life. God has given me a second chance; maybe things have gone wrong. I take life easy. I don’t stress or shout. I take things easy. It is a new life and a new beginning,” she stated.
After breast cancer treatment, everyday means a lot to me – Kate, survivor, 9 years breast cancer
Kate Ugwu said since after her treatment nine years ago; everyday means a lot to her. “I decided to stay healthy. I take a lot of supplements. Some they call antioxidants. I make myself happy and talk to people around me if there is anything bothering me. I am not giving depression a chance.”
Unlike Della, Kate discovered her breast cancer after her 40th birthday. The affected breast was later removed. She fought a gallant fight.
“I fought breast cancer with determination and I thank God I did not die of depression because a lot of patients die because of depression and not even cancer. Though I felt weak the first week but I picked up courage as my family and people who have benefitted from me were there to assist me.
“I decided on my own. I got some medical people that are closed to me. I told them to remove the lump right away. Immediately the remove the lump I took it to the lab and when the result came out I was sad. The doctors did radical mastectomy and the whole breast was removed.
“I spent well over a N1 million to do 10 courses of chemotherapy. It was terrible; I sourced for funds, browed money because it is not something you say, oh, I will do it when I have money.
“Every three weeks I have to get it. I wasn’t given any blood transfusion, the doctors said I have beaten their medical record, that nobody that has gone through chemotherapy 10 times would not require a pint of blood. I started taking blood supplements and I was fine. During that time a lot of people died of depression. Students aged 18 years were dying of depression. My Bible was my comforter all through.
“After five years I went for another screening and we saw another lump on the other breast and I was scared to the marrow. Immediately, I did it like the first one, it was a very big lump, It was removed and fortunately after four weeks they said it was not cancerous.
“I was happy and since then, everyday means a lot for me. I decided to stay healthy. I take a lot of supplements. I am no longer on drugs. I was told that I was going to take a particular drug for five years, but I said I would not need it because most people taking it are complaining that the drug is worsening their situation. Again, because that drug is too expensive I decided that the money should be used for supplements.”
Kate was regretful that many Nigerian women with cancer are picked up late. She urged women to seek help early. “Under this support group, people are getting assistance. People that cannot pay, the organisation is helping them to take treatment. If cancer patients are being taken care of like this HIV patients, many of them will survive.
We are only asking government to subsidise cancer treatment. Many people die because of lack of money to treat themselves,” she lamented.
Comprehensive cancer centre will reduce mortality from cancers
In her contribution, Convener of the Support Group and Executive Director, Care Organisation Public Enlightenment, COPE, Mrs Ebunola Anozie, stressed the need for the Nigerian government to establish a comprehensive cancer centre, adding that cancer should not be competing with diseases such as back pain, malaria amongst others.
“With a comprehensive cancer care, patients will be detected and treated early. There will not be referrals because most hospitals are dealing with other diseases and that is why they keep giving them referrals. If a woman comes to you with malignant breast cancer today and you are giving her three months or six months, of course it will progress.”
Anozie also stated that the centre would also help economically as it would save the money patients waste to go outside the country for treatment.
“It will even equip our local medical experts. We have brilliant doctors and some of them are sought after outside the country but you find out that because they do not have the tools to work with, they migrate. Then, it is going to reduce the mortality rate of cancer because it will be detected early and treated which is what everybody is crying for.”
Accusing government of not doing enough for cancer patients, she critiqued sponsorships of research work on cancer. “How many black women go for clinical trials? Do we have clinical trials done here? Do we have medication produce here? We have herbalists putting something together, are we supporting them? I am positive that the answer to cancer is here.
“When you are using medication that has been tried on a white person on a black woman how is it going to work that is why a lot of medications may not work. We need to get our ass together. It saddens me when I hear that someone has stolen from government and nothing is being done about it. Meanwhile people are dying. Until it happens to someone close them, they will start running up and down,” she lamented.