Vera Wisdom Bassey
In Africa, especially in Nigeria, it is strange to hear that a child has cancer and, in some cases, even if the parents know, self-denial often leads to an irredeemable situation or death.
However, the fact is that this ailment can affect anyone, old and young. It can even affect children as young as one month old. Sadly, this is the cross some parents have to bear at some point in their lives.
Nevertheless, all hope is not lost, as early detection of cancer still remains the only solution to tackling the disease, according to Dr. Nneka Nwobi, who has spent 17 years working with children living with cancer.
Nwobi sits atop the management of a non-governmental organisation, Children Living with Cancer Foundation (CLWCF).
In Lagos, recently, Dr. Nwobi shared her experience with Daily Sun.
Why did you set up a foundation to cater for children living with cancer?
The foundation was set up 17 years ago. At that time, there was no charity organisation to take care of children with such ailments. No one cared for their welfare, let alone making efforts to create awareness about their plight. And it is a serious health challenge. The way it ravages the adult body is the same way it does with children.
In any case, there were a lot of charity centres and individuals whose primary interest was channelled towards breast cancer in women, though very few were for cervical cancer. There was no group or individual who thought about caring for these kids.
As a medical practitioner, and having interacted with patients who suffered from cancer, I tried to get help for them from people but there was none. I had also had encounters with some lucky children. So, I spoke with some of my friends who bought into the idea. That was what gave birth to the idea of a foundation.
What led to the establishment of the foundation?
One of the people that actually got me interested in children living with cancer was a patient’s father. We had a clash simply because I dared to suggest to him that they should do a thorough medical investigation on his child for cancer but the man had no idea that children could suffer from such a disease.
To him, I must have been out of my mind to suggest that his child had cancer. But in the course of my study as a medical student in LUTH, I had met several children with cancer, so I wondered why the little boy’s father didn’t know that the child was battling with childhood cancer.
The child was discharged and the parents did not bring him back because of N25,000 for the chemotherapy. Instead, they took him to a church. And because the treatment of cancer is not a one-off thing, it is something you need to follow up on, but they did not come back to the hospital, until the child went into remission, it meant frequent medical check-ups for him.
At that point, I realised that most parents had no idea of childhood cancer. It sounds so strange to them that a mere child could be affected by the disease.
That was what gave birth to the foundation, so as to create awareness on childhood cancers and assist children living with cancer, medically. It was to let people realise that even children could be affected by cancer. As sad and pathetic as it may appear, it is a reality people have to face.
How many children do you have in your custody?
No, there is no child in my custody. They live with their parents. We run a ward at LUTH where the children come from their homes for the necessary medical tests and they are admitted there. They receive their treatment and go back home and come back as they are required to do; and, because it is cancer, they come every three to four weeks to receive their treatment.
Do you do all of these free of charge?
No, we don’t, but for some time now we have been trying to see whether they can get it free of charge for Nigerian children.
What are the likely symptoms of childhood cancer?
Some of the symptoms are as common as fever and pains in the bone. It is just like what we have in leukemia. And it is important that we alert everyone on childhood cancer. It is a household thing, so most people need to be aware that childhood cancer is close. It is imperative for us to understand that we can’t find solution to it by merely wishing it away or rejecting it. It doesn’t end that way. It is a serious health challenge.
How can the children be managed at that tender age?
The most important thing is to detect early enough that the child has cancer. The funny thing is that, abroad, they have very high cure of up to 80 per cent or 90 per cent, but, in Nigeria, we have less than 20 per cent.
The difference is quite large so we try to see how we can get a cure in Nigeria such as up to 60 per cent success rate. This will be a huge success for us.
The financial burden, the physiological trauma for parents, just helplessly watching their children in agony and not being able to do anything for the child but, perhaps, only thinking of their child’s imminent death is unimaginable. In the Nigerian tradition and culture, it is not right for parents to see their child’s corpse.
For most parents who find themselves in this situation, all they do is just cry out of hopelessness but, again, it is not a death sentence. It is not the end of the world. We try to give them hope. All the same, you must bring the patient on time for proper medical examination. That is the most important thing.
You must have recorded a case of someone surviving or beating this disease. Could you give us a brief story of it?
Yes, I have a survival story. It is the story of a woman who battled with ovarian cancer for eight years. She survived it and today, she is a student nurse at the School of Nursing.
She talks about how well she was taken care of at LUTH while she was sick. She got inspired by the care, love and dedication and sense of commitment from the entire medical team and nurses that took care of her. She decided to go and read nursing so that she could help others.
Talking about ovarian cancer, how does one get to know she has it?
It depends on how it presents itself. It might come with pains because of the tumor. There is also the enlargement and erratic bleeding because the menstrual circle is no longer as normal as it should be but the most important thing is to know your body.
Can ovarian cancer also be managed?
Yes, but the most important thing is early detection. That is the key, followed by the appropriate treatment and dependence on God for survival of the patient.
How do you reach women in rural areas?
We are still trying to get there, but has not been easy because of (paucity of) funds. I am working in Lagos State but I am from Anambra State. We are looking for sponsors. We also try to involve the caregivers in the community, during the immunisation period, to help teach them what to look out for as symptoms.
What is your parting word for women?
Women should avoid staying in one place. We cannot afford to stay stationary. Our children and family need our financial support. You should help your husband. He shouldn’t shoulder the family needs alone. That way, you are adding value to the marriage. My husband supports me and anything that makes me happy. My husband even sponsors some of my programmes when I don’t have the funds.