By Job Osazuwa
Mrs. Ejiro Otega woke up one fateful day in September 2016 to discover that there was what looked like a little lump in her left breast. She felt a light pain when she pressed that part of the breast.
The thought of cancer was certainly the least of what she imagined might be wrong with her. She took some painkillers, got relief and moved on with her normal daily routine.
Thereafter, the pain intermittently resurfaced and disappeared after suppressing it with above-the-counter drugs. By the time the Delta State-born lady went for diagnosis, the pain had become unbearable for her, even as the lump grew bigger. When the test result came out, Mrs. Otega was told that she had cancer.
Like many Nigerians, she rejected the result. She declared, with faith, that breast cancer was “not her portion.” Her affirmation was followed by some marathon prayers.
The mother of two reacted as many of her countrywomen might have done. She believed that the disease was not something that could happen to her, and she wished it all away.
“If we had known better then, I am sure that mother would have survived the sickness. We wasted our money in so many wrong ways that further worsened her situation. We were paying for herbs and other concoctions to traditional healers who don’t even understand what cancer was.
“By the time we realised that we were taking the wrong path, it was too late. We later took her to the hospital for orthodox medicine but it was like medicine after death. My mother died after two years and six months of pain and suffering,” her son, Oghenekewe Otega, told the reporter recently.
It has been discovered that, in developing countries, including Nigeria, the majority of women diagnosed with breast cancer do not survive because their cancer was detected too late.
Experts have repeatedly said that massive awareness is the first step in the battle against cancer and it is important for every woman to examine her breasts regularly.
The mere mention of cancer sends a discomforting chill into many. The disease has claimed many people. From the list of the victims, it is safe to say that it is a respecter of no one. Cancer harvests souls, irrespective of affluence, age, race and gender.
Every February 4, World Cancer Day, is set aside to increase awareness and strengthen forces against social myths and misconceptions surrounding the disease. This year’s theme is: “I am and I will.”
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 17 people die every minute from cancer in the world. The body believes that detecting cancer early will effectively reduce the mortality associated with the scourge. The primary purpose of celebrating the special day is to reduce the number of cancer patients and to reduce its death rate.
WHO has said that cancer is the second leading cause of death globally. Various types of cancer occur, but the most common cancers are lung, breast, cervical, neck, brain, and colorectal cancer.
Decrying the rising incidence of cancer, the president of Commonwealth Medical Association (CMA), Osahon Enabulele, called for the integration of cancer prevention and treatment services into universal health coverage frameworks.
In his address to commemorate the 2021 World Cancer Day, Enabulele stated that cancer was a leading cause of morbidity and mortality globally, which killed people every minute in low- and middle-income countries.
In the message that he made available to Daily Sun, he said: “Identifying cervical cancer is a major challenge in the Commonwealth. Commonwealth of Nations accounts for about 40 per cent share of the global cervical cancer incidence burden and 43 per cent of the global cervical cancer mortality, and with 85 per cent of deaths from cervical cancer occurring in low- and middle-income countries.”
He further stated that nearly half a million women in the Commonwealth of Nations were living with cervical cancer, with one woman dying from cervical cancer every five minutes. He, therefore, called for accelerated attention and action to stem the rising tide of cervical cancer and other forms of cancers.
Enabulele averred that the rising incidence and huge burden of cervical cancer was a reflection of social injustice and numerous other factors, including poverty and inequity in access to quality cancer care. He urged women of reproductive age to adopt appropriate health-seeking behaviours and healthy lifestyle practices. He also encouraged them to undergo regular health screening and to present early for treatment in the precancerous stages.
The CMA president charged government to act more decisively to flatten the cancer curve, especially by being proactive through national health insurance schemes in ways that would create opportunities for improved access to quality health care and cancer services.
Oncologists have said that though the disease is non-communicable, it could start from any part of the human body and spread to surrounding tissues, causing havoc anywhere it touches.
There have been calls by experts and other concerned Nigerians to the Federal Government to establish comprehensive cancer care centres across the six geopolitical zones in Nigeria. This, they believe, will help to tame the ravaging scourge. According to the crusaders, there should be town hall meetings as well as outreaches to schools, rural areas, churches and mosques to create awareness and sensitisation.
Taking a cursory look at some prominent Nigerians that succumbed to the dreaded ailment, not many people will easily forget the wife of former President Ibrahim Babangida, Maryam, who died from ovarian cancer on December 27, 2009, Olusola Saraki, who died on November 14, 2012, and Clara Oshiomhole, wife of the former governor of Edo State, Adams Oshiomhole, from breast cancer on December 7, 2010.
Other prominent names are music legend, Sunny Okosun, from colon cancer, on May 24, 2008; legal luminary, Gani Fawehinmi, from lung cancer, on September 5, 2009; former minister of information and erstwhile director-general of National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), Dora Akunyili, on June 7, 2014; renowned medical doctor, Beko Ransome-Kuti, from lung cancer, on February 10, 2006; and the founder and chairman of The Guardian newspaper, Alex Ibru, on November 20, 2011.
A general practitioner based in Lagos, Abah Nathaniel described cancer as a collection of diseases characterised by uncontrolled growth and spread of abnormal cells.
“Naturally, human cells grow and divide to form new cells as per the requirement of the body. The normal process is that when cells become old or damaged, they die and new cells take their place.
“But when there is cancer, it does not happen. The cells become abnormal. Old cells, instead of dying, survive and when there is no need for new cells, they also develop. These extra cells divide and divide and grow into tumours,” he said.
He advocated free blood test for prostate cancer, while imploring men above 45 years old to make themselves available for the test.
During last year’s World Cancer Day, the wife of Ondo State Governor, Betty Anyanwu Akeredolu, implored individuals, corporate bodies to commit to the fight against cancer in any little way they could afford.
Through her foundation, Breast Cancer Association of Nigeria (BRECAN), she has been sensitising women in Ondo State and beyond to the prevention and management of the dreaded disease.
The NGO, as gathered, was founded with the aim to encourage government not to turn a blind eye to the fight against cancer. It also focuses on early diagnosis of the disease and also encourages government to improve on its policies, to curtail the toll of cancer on women.
She stressed that though government had a bigger role to play in the fight against cancer, by providing necessary medical infrastructure, individuals also ought to commit to the cause. She called on Nigerians to cultivate the habit of donating a token to cancer support groups.
Mrs. Akeredolu affirmed that many people have been surviving the disease as a result of early detection, and advised people to follow medical advice, if something abnormal is detected in their bodies.
In her contribution to reducing the incidence, the founder and CEO of the first breast cancer awareness network in Nigeria, Care, Organisation and Public Enlightenment (COPE), Mrs. Ebunola Anozie, told Daily Sun that despite the discoveries and clinical advances across the world to tackle the disease, Nigeria still wallows in ignorance, medical infrastructural decay and government’s negligence, to the detriment of the people.
She decried the dilapidated facilities in the sector and dearth of experts. She lamented that decades of neglect by successive administrations had punctured the health sector and left it comatose.
Urging the government to increase budgetary allocation to the health sector, Anozie reiterated that cancer was never a death sentence and was curable, especially with early detection, management and right treatment.
Anozie said: “Even those patients who are lucky to be diagnosed early are not treated in time due to long queues and poor access to proper treatment at government hospitals, therefore, leading to high mortality rate.
“Except the government does something very urgently to rescue the healthcare sector, we are heading for danger in this country. The total budget for health is abysmal.
“Our vision is to reduce the mortality rate of breast cancer in Nigeria by offering adequate information and service to combat the disease and make treatment affordable to all Nigerians, irrespective of financial status. Treating cancer is very expensive, running into millions of naira.”
On the way out, Anozie said: “Apart from being conscious of what we eat, we must exercise every day and reduce intake of sugary drinks. Then government must establish research centres where traditional medicines can be promoted. All the plants were created for a purpose and Nigeria is blessed with them as deposited in different parts of the country.”