‘My mandate is to raise foot soldiers against cancer’
The wife of Ondo State governor and founder of Breast Cancer Association of Nigeria (BRECAN), Betty Anyanwu-Akeredolu, shares her experience about breast cancer with Oluwaseun Akingboye in Akure. She is advocating that no woman should die of breast cancer anymore and affirms that it takes positive attitude and early detection to overcome the menace through the primary and secondary prevention mandates of the association
How did you manage your breast cancer realities?
As you are aware, I am a breast cancer survivor; 20 years now and still counting. It all started in 1997 when I was diagnosed, I never knew anyone who had that experience and the little information I got from Cable TV then: Midlands in Ibadan, foreign news like CNN, Skynews, issues like breast cancer and advocacy movements of people championing causes. It wasn’t something we were familiar with, very little was reported in our media. On that faithful morning when I felt something on my breast, of course, my mind raced to breast cancer because I know where such a disease was located. I was scared, not knowing 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 it to myself for almost one week, I didn’t know what to do: my baby was just four or thereabout. So, I just tuned to the television that morning and what I heard was, “this programme could save your life.” Immediately I heard that I just raised myself from the pillow and now sat, wondering what could that be?
And it happened to be about breast cancer survival journey. That kind of coincidence I don’t know, it was what was meant to be and it really saved my life. There was this Wright woman on the randy show and it was her journey through breast cancer diagnosis, and she happened to be the mother of popular Hollywood actors, the Bubbling Brothers; they are very popular in Hollywood.
She went through the treatment and then she could call herself a survivor and was sharing her experience for the whole world to listen. She used the chronicle of her journey to lift up the spirit of those undergoing such experience, and I benefitted from it.
That was how I summoned the courage to go to the hospital, and said whatever this woman did, this thing I saw her when she was down and finished; and to this stage to make her story to make impact on other women suffering from same ailment, I am going to be like her. It was after the examination of the check by the doctor, who again confirmed there was a lump, but even at that stage, he didn’t know what it was.
Are you saying lumps in the breast may be something else and not cancer?
I want to quickly emphasize something at this juncture; it is part of awareness campaign. When women notice a lump, they don’t know what that lump is until you see a doctor and he would recommend a test; it is after that test you now know whether what you have is a breast cancer or benign. We got to know that we have two types; benign one and the cancerous one, you never can tell the cancerous one until a test is conducted. It is very important. When I told my husband, he was scared but he didn’t know that I had been fortified by that TV programme that I watched, and that was it. I think he must have wondered where I gathered the strength because I was on my feet and already prepared that whatever that woman did, I was going to do and get okay. From then, my treatment commenced. What is the next line of treatment? That would be mastectomy.
How did you cope with the mastectomy?
By then the level of breast healthcare was at the rudimentary level in 1997. So, it was still the same radical mastectomy, just remove everything, and I said, remove the damn thing if that is what will make me live. And we did that, the rest is history.
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 were going to lose their breasts, they are already gone. One, their husband would marry another woman with two breasts.
The man shouldn’t 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 woman that would be married to take care of their children after their death.
Some women reject mastectomy and run to a pastor who will be giving them holy water or Jerusalem oil to rub because they don’t want to lose their breasts, and at the end of the day, they come back with decayed breast, which one will anyone choose?
Is it not better you lose your breast and live and be well for your children and husband than you are preoccupied that your husband would leave you and marry someone else? You have to live before you talk about enjoying marriage; one comes first before the other. Being one-breasted doesn’t really define you, like I told a woman, when your husband saw you, he never saw your nakedness. Even after mastectomy, you can still have a baby, yes; you can breastfeed with one breast. But you must be alive to do this.
Did you travel abroad for proper treatment?
I had successful treatment and everything done by UCH, Ibadan I didn’t go anywhere. That also brings the point that the country doesn’t know what they have because we have everything to make this country great. I think those that are taking the decisions are the ones that are not thinking highly of what this nation can be.
When I had my surgery, there was petrol scarcity, we bought fuel in jerry-can and went to my consultant to give him to use because I needed to get rid of this thing. I was lucky mine was found at stage one, it took me one week and I went to the hospital. There are some other women, because it wasn’t painful they just carry on; not knowing that they have a bomb in them waiting for explosion. Unfortunately, over 80 per cent is what we see in the hospital nationwide.
Do you think there’s enough awareness for this virulent ailment?
Awareness is not enough because 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 juju and spiritual attack. It is when you have a robust awareness campaign and consistency, too, like what was done to HIV/AIDS. I think we should bring breast cancer to that level and keep talking about it.
Women must be familiar with their breasts, if they are not familiar with how their breasts look like, there is no way they 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 we explain it to our women, especially those who didn’t go to too much school. We should bring it down to our people.
Are you suggesting that science should be expressed in local languages?
We need to bring it down to our people; so that they don’t have to waste their time at prayer mountains: science is science. We can still break it down to the language they understand. In China today, everything is expressed in Chinese, the same thing with most of these Asian countries. The science that is being taught in English Language, they brought it down to their local languages. 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 survived and still living normally, living productive life, there is need to put our faces on breast cancer so that people know that they can survive it. It is not a death sentence. I don’t think anyone should die of breast cancer these days.
How was BRECAN founded, and 20 years down the line, how would you describe the people’s response to it?
When we started, nobody even wanted to be part of BRECAN because, on getting to UCH and I saw that there were other women also getting treatment for the various stages of the disease, I was obviously disturbed and I discussed with my consultant that I wasn’t going to keep quiet. I never knew that people could go there, get treatment and keep their mouth shut without letting anyone know; I wouldn’t do that and that was how the idea to start an NGO barely six months after I was discharged from the hospital.
When the idea came that other women, too, can benefit, that they don’t have to wait, if they wait, it would be bad for them. It was like a mission, but I couldn’t recruit any among the women with me in that ward, not even one.
I reached out to my friends, they were well women, nothing was wrong with them but they felt they should identify with a friend. They didn’t join BRECAN because they wanted to save the world, just to support a friend because they saw the passion in me. It sparkled something in me, I didn’t know I had that capacity. I heard people say because they heard me speak on television and on radio; they mustered the courage to go to the hospital. Now we have eight BRECAN chapters across the nation, the mother chapter is in Oyo State. We will be 20 years old this year October.
Is it not necessary that government should subsidise the treatment cost?
It can be done but Nigerians themselves should donate to causes like this. Let us start with ourselves. How about you, every average Nigerian on the street? What is your contribution to this cause? This disease affects everyone. The change begins with you. In all the developed countries funds are sourced from their citizens everyday. It is not that they are getting subventions from anywhere: it could be $5, $10; that culture is what we lack here.
Government has to pass a bill for the establishment of this cancer treatment centre. I am sure many of them don’t get it yet, until we talk to them to let them see why it must be done. Comprehensive cancer treatment is not a joke, it is a huge investment. They must know that by investing so much money, they are saving the lives of their women.
Do you think government is helping to put the necessary medical facilities to encourage the fight against cancer?
We have radiotherapy equipment in this country but they are not working. Sometimes only one, if one is working in Ibadan, the whole of Nigeria will go there and this is part of cancer treatment protocol that every patient must undergo. Look at India; they are raking in huge foreign currencies from Nigerians because we fail to put our house in order.Policy makers fail to give cancer attention, forgetting it is one of the diseases you meet along the way as you age and many Nigerians are aging. Any government that neglects cancer cares little about its citizens. To add salt to the injury, cancer is not covered under NHIS. I can’t believe it.
As a First Lady and founder of BRECAN, what are you going to do in these regards?
We are going to lobby for the policy to be reviewed. Is there any day we don’t hear about people dying of cancer? Our people are dying like flies, especially women. Treating cancer is very expensive.
Now, my husband doesn’t need any lobby again, he is an indirect survivor. So, he has to do whatever within his power to make sure we have a cancer treatment centre; that will at least take off the load on federal government. It is overwhelming, they can’t deal with it; states should have their cancer treatment centres, comprehensive ones. We can now then reach out, partnering with the primary health care centres so that every woman can visit the nearest health centre for test and examination.
Not all doctors can treat breast cancer because it is a specialised medicine, our women are mismanaging; most of the doctors around are not capable. The experts can mostly be found in teaching hospitals and Federal Medical Centres; even some state hospitals, they don’t even have experts there. For this centre, we are hoping that the governor will build one for us soon.
I am sure that this government will demonstrate to us that it is truly a progressive. One good thing is that all roads will lead to Ondo State. Aside from people coming here to get treatment, it will also serve as medical tourism for the state; people will come here and spend their money and IGR will shoot up with several socio-economic advantages attached to it.
Does the association treat or incur treatment expenses?
We don’t treat; we are grossly advocacy group, we refer. When people come to us, we make sure they go to the right person where they can access care. We have doctors whom we are partnering with: some in UCH, OAU, LUTH, Abuja and FMC Owo.
Any plans for expansion?
We have established BRECAN in eight states, even BRECAN club in Queens School, Enugu, which has a population of 4,000 girls. When our women fail to listen; they are still presenting breast cancer at terrible stages, though we knew that human behaviour is very difficult to change because we are also be-devilled with our culture and religious convictions that are a bit difficult to change overnight. We decided to beam our searchlight on their daughters in secondary school; they are not yet fixated on their beliefs. By establishing these chapters, we are raising armies of foot soldiers who will comb all the places. If we continue this way, every woman will be aware; then we will pressure government to do the needful.
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