By Sola Ogundipe
A cancer diagnosis could be devastating, but cancer does not have to be a death sentence. With prompt diagnosis, good treatment as well as sustained care and support, cancer is survivable.
Sadly, many Nigerians diagnosed with cancer eventually die of the disorder; however there are several cancer survivors that are living in good health after achieving full recovery.
Are you a Nigerian living with cancer? Even if you are not, what are you doing about cancer care and support in Nigeria? This was the pertinent question at a forum penultimate week in Lagos in commemoration of the 2017 National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
The forum was put together as a partnership between the Care. Organisation. Public Enlightenment (C.O.P.E) and the Bricon Foundation, with sponsorship by Hurlag Technologies Ltd and supported by Pfizer Pharmaceuticals.
C.O.P.E is a support group that meets once a month in Lagos creating education and awareness about cancer in Nigeria and helping to dispel myths about cancer, offering a lifeline in form of emotional support to breast cancer patients and survivors and educating people affected by cancer on the benefits of diet and exercise.
One of the speakers at the event,Della Ogunleye, 55, a breast cancer survivor. She narrated how she was caught completely off guard when diagnosed with the disease in 2010. Following the diagnosis, Della, a church administrator was even more confused when she was told she needed to have mastectomy (breast removal).
“Why me?” She asked no one in particular. “Without the benefit of care and support, the diagnosis was one big scare. I did not have the mentality that the disease was an attack or anything like that. Before I was diagnosed, I had this breast pain, but I always thought that cancer was a white man’s disease and did not believe blacks had it. I was an advocate for self-medication. I love the African touch and I was trying to do it for cancer.
Della who is the CEO, DDS African Cancer Support Group is using her experiences in the United Kingdom to help women affected by cancer in Nigeria. “I live in an affluent side of England, Wimbledon but I can say my experience with breast cancer was good and bad. Nobody in my family had cancer and I still don’t know how I got it. My mother was so scared when she heard I had cancer.
“I was diagnosed in 2010 and had chemotherapy for six months. The chemo ended 30th December and the first thing they told me to do was breast reconstruction but I do not like fake things so I wear a prosthetic bra. If you passed me on the street you would not know.”
Della who visits Nigeria to contribute to the advocacy for cancer care and support says there is so much to do to help women with breast cancer in Nigeria.
“Care and support are essential towards ensuring cancer survival. When you are diagnosed with cancer, you need support. Somebody has to hear our voices. We should stop wallowing in self-pity. If we don’t tell the government what to do, it’s a waste of time. We should target the right audience.”
Abigail Simon-Hart, Co-Founder, The Bricon Foundation and also a breast cancer survivor, opted for a double mastectomy when she was diagnosed years ago.
“I had cancer and basically took both breasts off. It was not a hard decision for me at all. I just asked the doctor to take them off. I did not even wait for him to give me options. For me it was that, if these breasts are going to kill me, I might as well take them off.
“My mother had breast cancer, but I do not have the BRECAN gene. The cancer I had was not in any way genetic. I got diagnosed on time and right now I am cancer free. Many of those diagnosed have to wait five or so years but for me it was three and a half years.”
Abigail, who is a health consultant with over 20 years’ experience, said she observed that in Europe, women who have metastatic cancer (cancer that has spread to other parts of the body) are living up to 15-30 years even with metastasis all because of appropriate care. That is what it boils down to. And there is no reason why we cannot have that here. The important thing is education and access to treatment, care and correct medication.
She said cancer is an everyday occurrence, so it should be talked about every day. “Every day, when I wake up in the morning, I see the effects of the cancer I had because I removed my breasts. Women with breast cancer that are undergoing treatment live the effects every day.”
Abigail stresses that every Nigerian has a role to play and be a voice for change, to make a difference. “The Nigerian health system should be improved because even with early detection, if there are no facilities, people will continue to die of a disease we should not be dying of.
In his own views, Dr Niyi Adekeye, also Co-Founder of The Bricon Foundation, said the NGO does not carry out any screening. “Patients only come to us after they are diagnosed with cancer and we find many NGOs are offering free screening but not offering treatment. The challenge is that if you tell people that they have cancer and you do not support with treatment or care and support, then they are worse off than before because now they know, but are helpless to do anything about it because they cannot afford the cost of management of the disease.”
The Bricon foundation, works with patients and their families already diagnosed with the disease providing support from provision of free mastectomy products, funding of treatment and nutrient support to indigent women who have lost one or both breasts.
Ebunola Anozie, the CEO, C.O.P.E, did not mince words. “Cancer is on the prowl in Nigeria and enough is not being done to stop it. Cancer doesn’t respect borders – it can happen to anybody, anywhere.
She lamented that the socio -economic impact of cancer is significant and increasing in Nigeria, worsened by late stage presentation and inadequate diagnosis/ treatment that contribute to higher cancer mortality rate higher than anywhere else in Africa.
“The average Nigerian cannot cope with the enormous cost associated with treating this disease, and a lack of adequate diagnostic and treatment centers as well as the dearth of qualified personnel, makes the cancer journey a perilous, traumatic and sometimes lonely one. “There are countless examples of patients being abandoned as a result of the high cost and even superstitious beliefs that the person is somehow responsible and is being punished by God for some wrong doing or is under some sort of curse.”
Calling for increased political will in Nigeria to really tackle the issue of cancer with the urgency and seriousness it deserves, Ebunola tasked government and Nigerians at large to take on a holistic and determined action plan to address the cancer scourge.
“ Living with cancer is not death sentence. Cancer is everybody’s fight. Let us spread the message of hope.”
According to Ngozi Ushedo, Media & Public Relations Manager, Pfizer: “We will continue to work together and speak with one voice to help raise awareness on early detection, reducing cancer risks and improving the quality of life for cancer survivors and patients”.
C.O.P.E and The Bricon Foundation have made giant strides in providing succour to cancer survivors and those battling the disease. For over 18 years, COPE has embarked on massive breast cancer awareness campaigns providing free breast screening in Lagos and several other states in Nigeria.
The Bricon Foundation recently set up a “Help 4 Husbands” – H4H group, the first of its kind, to provide support for men whose womenfolk are battling or have lost the battle with cancer. The inaugural meeting is 13th October 2017
The C.O.P.E group of special, brave women meet every 3rd Thursday of each month from 11.00am -1.00pm, at 39B Adeniyi Jones Avenue, Ikeja, Lagos, whilst the Bricon Foundation “Whole Woman Group” meets on the last Friday of every month at the same time.