… ‘I could not keep quiet after I survived’
By Dayo Johnson, Akure
AHEAD of the 20th anniversary and the third lnternational Breast Cancer Symposium of the Breast Cancer Association of Nigeria, BRECAN, its founder, who doubles as the First Lady of Ondo State, Mrs Betty Anyanwu-Akeredolu, speaks on how she survived breast cancer among other issues relating to the ailment.
Could you share your experience with women suffering from this disease?
I survived breast cancer about 20 years ago. It all started in 1997 when I was diagnosed. Before then, I didn’t know anyone who had that experience and the little information I got was from the international media.
On that fateful morning when I felt something in my breast, of course, my mind raced to breast cancer because it was where such a disease was located. I was scared and didn’t know what to do; it happened when I was resting at home during my annual leave. It got me thinking that if this happened to be breast cancer, what was I going to do at that age? I was 42 or 43 and I had little children. What would become of those children?
I kept the discovery to myself for almost one week. My baby was just four years’ old or thereabouts. So, I just tuned to television that morning and what I heard was that ‘this programme could save your life’. Immediately I heard that, I raised my head from the pillow, sat and began to wonder, what could this be? And it happened to be about breast cancer survival journey. That coincidence saved my life.
There was this woman and it was her journey through breast cancer diagnosis, and she happened to be the mother of a popular Hollywood actor. She went through the treatment and, as a survivor, was sharing her experience. She used her journey to lift the spirit of those undergoing such experience and I benefitted from it. That was how I summoned the courage to go to hospital, and said that ‘whatever this woman did, I am going to be like her’. After the examination, the doctor confirmed there was a lump, but he didn’t know what it was.
I want to quickly emphasis something at this juncture; it is part of awareness campaign. When a woman notices a lump, she doesn’t know what that lump is until she sees a doctor and he recommends a test; it is after that test she knows whether what she has is breast cancer or not. We have two types of cancer: the benign or the cancerous one, you never can tell the cancerous one until a test is conducted.
The test is very important. When I told my husband, he was scared but he didn’t know I had been fortified by that television programme I had watched. He must have wondered where I got the strength because I was on my feet and prepared that whatever that woman did, I was going to do and overcome.
Then my treatment commenced. The first treatment was mastectomy. At the said time (1997), the level of breast health care was at the rudimentary level. Radical mastectomy meant ‘just remove everything (breasts)’ and I said ‘remove the damn thing if that is what will make me live’.
My experience was one of shattering loneliness, unavailability of information and group support, coupled with the tight- lip syndrome and indifference surrounding the disease. The situation inspired me to do something that will bring about a positive and lasting change in the attitude of breast cancer victims and the Nigerian society towards breast cancer and sufferers.
Why do breast cancer sufferers keep quiet on the disease?
Like I always tell women, surviving breast cancer is all about attitude. If you lose it, it can be very difficult because some women, immediately they are told they are going to lose their breasts, they are already gone. First, they would think their husbands would marry other women with two breasts. The man shouldn’t that be on the radar screen, they should be more concerned about their children. They must do everything to live and take care of the children because they could not tell the character of the women the husbands would marry to take care of their children after their death. So when women reject mastectomy and run to a pastor who will give them ‘holy water or Jerusalem oil’ to rub because they don’t want to lose their breasts, at the end of the day, they come back with decayed breasts.
So, which one will anyone choose? Is it not better you lose breasts, live and be well for your children and husband than you being preoccupied that your husband will leave you and marry someone else? You have to live before you can talk about enjoying marriage; one comes first before the other. Being one-breasted doesn’t really define you. I once told a woman, ‘when your husband first saw you, he never saw your nakedness’.
But should victims be afraid of mastectomy?
Even after mastectomy, you can still have a baby, yes; you can breastfeed with one breast. But you must be alive to be able to do this. I had successful treatment and everything done at UCH. That brings me to the point that the country doesn’t know what it has because we have everything to make this country great.
I think those that take decisions are the ones that are not thinking rightly of what this nation can be. When I had my surgery, there was petrol scarcity, so we had to buy fuel in Jerry-can and gave to my consultant to use because I needed to get rid of this thing.
I was lucky my own cancer was discovered at stage one. There are many women, but because it isn’t painful, they just carry on; not knowing that they have bomb in them waiting to explode. Unfortunately over 80 per cent is what we see in our hospitals nationwide.
Would you say the awareness programme on breast cancer has achieved positive results?
We need awareness for our women to understand the behaviour of this disease. If you don’t explain to them, they will keep thinking it is the result of Juju (charm) or spiritual attack; it is when wehave a robust awareness campaign and consistency, like what was done to HIV/AIDS, that we will be succeeding against breast cancer.
A woman must be familiar with her breasts, if she is not familiar with how their breasts look like, there is no way she can notice any unusual change. When you tell our women to do this, they will tell you that ‘God forbid’, they are covered by the blood of Jesus; they are daughters of Zion.
We must figure how to explain it to our women, especially those who don’t have education so that they don’t waste their time on praying mountains; science is science. We can break it down to the language they understand. Nobody should think that breaking down science in our local languages is difficult, it is not but a matter of political will so that people will understand what is going on and take advantage of knowledge.
That is why people like us, who have survived, need to focus on breast cancer so that people know that they can survive too. It is not a death sentence. I don’t think anyone should die of breast cancer anymore.
When we started, nobody wanted to be part of BRECAN because when you got to UCH lbadan and saw that there were other women also getting treatment for the various stages of the disease, you were obviously disturbed and I discussed with my consultant that I wasn’t going to keep quiet. By and large, today, BRECAN is encouraged that its programmes are sensitizing the Nigerian public. Consequent upon the use of awareness creation as an entry point in the fight against breast cancer, more victims are coming out, seeking information and support. Breast cancer, hitherto, discussed in hushed tones is now a topic widely featured on the electronic and print media. Our innovative activity, Jog for Life, is succeeding in breaking down the wall of secrecy and stigmatisation as survivors showcase that there is life after breast cancer.
Are you not burdened by the absence of policy on cancer in the country?
Though, regrettably, the absence of a national policy on cancer has left cancer patients basically on their own, BRECAN has demonstrated that a helping hand, no matter how small, can make a difference in the lives of cancer patients and their families. With the collaboration of some doctors and other health professionals, the association provides emotional and informational support and healthy living tips to patients and family members at the BRECAN Centre during the monthly breakfast aerobics session.
Given that it is not within the scope of the association to sponsor patients’ treatment, some very needy patients are assisted from the paltry proceeds generated internally. Furthermore, sequel to the collaboration with a volunteer team of consultants at the University College Hospital, Ibadan, Obafemi Awolowo University Teaching Hospital, Ile-Ife, Federal Medical Centre, Ebute-Meta and Federal Medical Centre, Owerri, BRECAN readily refers any woman with any complaint about breast changes to these experts thereby creating access for women to have clinical breast examination free of charge.
With democracy in place, hopefully, BRECAN is working on enlisting the participation of female legislators in the National Assembly. Breast cancer is a disease that has a woman face and respects no social status; there is a need to nudge them to rise up to their responsibilities as women politicians with a focus.
Together we can create an unstoppable force in the National Assembly pushing for the passage of bills that will compel our government to place breast cancer on national agenda. It is our hope that all these actions and many more to come will pave the way to ending the regime of breast cancer as a life threatening disease in Nigeria.