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World Cancer Day 2021 (triennial grand finale): Our personal and concerted actions against cancer matter!

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February 4 every year is designated as World Cancer Day (WCD) to amplify the call for action and to rally the international community to end the injustice of preventable suffering from cancer. 2021 is the grand finale of the 3-year ‘I Am and I Will’ campaign. This theme (‘I Am and I Will’) reminds one of the heartfelt confession of Lily Tomlin who said: “I always wondered why somebody doesn’t do something about that. Then I realized I was somebody”.

‘I Am and I Will’ is an empowering call-to-action, urging for personal commitment and represents the power of individual action taken now to impact the future. This theme aligns with Edward Hale’s declaration: “I am only one; but still I am one.

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I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.”

It is not enough to complain and expect others to solve the problems in society. We must not refuse to do what we can do, just because we cannot do everything. We can be the change we want to see. This final year of the ‘I Am and I Will’ campaign is an opportunity to ask ourselves how much each of us as individuals has contributed to the fight against cancer and to commit to taking personal action in future.

It is more urgent now than ever to escalate the BIG WAR Against Cancer to stem the cancer scourge in Nigeria. According to World Health Organisation (WHO), there are currently 43.8 million cancer patients worldwide, with over 18 million new cancer cases yearly. Cancer is now responsible for one in six deaths globally, with 9.6 million deaths from cancer each year.

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Sadly, 70 per cent of cancer deaths occur in developing nations like Nigeria. There are currently over 200,000 cancer cases in Nigeria with over 100,000 new cases occurring every year. About 200 Nigerians die every day from cancer, with 32 of these daily cancer deaths resulting from breast cancer, 28 from cervical cancer, 16 from prostate cancer and 14 from liver cancer.

Furthermore, WHO projects that if things remain the same, there will be a 60 per cent increase in cancer cases within two decades, with the greatest increase (over 80 per cent) occurring in developing countries, including Nigeria. This projected increase is likely to be even greater, because of the multiple negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on cancer care (budgetary diversion of local resources towards addressing the COVID-19 crisis; restriction on crowding which is required for mass cancer screening; increased strain on health personnel and infrastructure; and restriction on medical tourism).

The disproportionate burden of cancer mortality in developing countries is largely because the health services of the poor nations are not equipped to prevent, diagnose and treat cancers. For instance, whilst India has over 200 Comprehensive Cancer Centres, most of which are the products of non-governmental/nonprofit endeavor, Nigeria has none. In addition, Nigeria has less than ten (10) radiotherapy machines, against WHO recommended minimum of one radiotherapy machine for every one million people. Worse still, most of Nigeria’s radiotherapy machines are outmoded or faulty.

Consequently, Nigerians who can afford it go abroad for treatment, spending over one $billion annually, an amount sufficient to establish 20 Comprehensive Cancer Centre (CCC) in Nigeria every year! Tragically, those who seek care abroad often die from late intervention. This financial haemorrhage is unsustainable and the waste of lives is unacceptable. Moreover, the COVID-related global lockdown has shown that medical tourism may not always be available, even if one could afford it.

The good news however, is that each of us can be an agent of positive transformation in the dreary cancer situation in Nigeria if we would stop passing the buck but make personal commitments to support ↓↑GivingTide International, which is championing the BIG WAR Against Cancer in Nigeria.

↓↑GivingTide is an initiative aimed at promoting synergistic, concerted and catalytic philanthropy for the common good. The↓↑GivingTide Global Trust is a corporate Trust set up to oversee the funds of the BIG WAR Against Cancer. The Trust is managed by Messrs FBNQuest Trustees, a subsidiary of FBN Holdings.

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The BIG WAR is operated by the National Cancer Prevention Programme (NCPP), a nongovernmental initiative of mass medical mission. Since 2007, NCPP has been spearheading community-based preventive cancer care across the country which has contributed to a reduction in cancer deaths in Nigeria from 75,392 in 2008 to 70,327 in 2018 (WHO data). To escalate the impact of the BIG WAR, a fleet of Mobile Cancer Centres (a.k.a. the PinkCruise), were deployed in 2017.

The immediate goal of the BIG WAR is to establish the first CCC in Nigeria, whilst sustaining the existing mobile system of preventive cancer care. A CCC is NOT merely a hospital which has a radiotherapy machine. Rather, a CCC is a world-class, stand-alone tertiary health institution, with all its departments focused on cancer care. The CCC houses cancer research, preventive, curative and palliative cancer care in one place, thereby leading to better outcomes across a range of measures – including, most importantly, cancer survival.

Together, we can establish the first CCC in Nigeria, in record time, if we could take inspiration from public – spirited individuals around the world (including Africa) who contributed to the establishment of the CCCs in their own countries. For instance, Egypt, with a population of 82.5 million, has a National Cancer Institute (NCI), several CCC & mobile units. Egypt also has the world’s largest stand-alone children cancer hospital – Children’s Cancer Hospital Egypt (CCHE). The CCHE was spearheaded by a paediatric oncologist, Dr Sherif Naga, after she lost 13 of the 16 paediatric cancer patients under her care, in one day. The CCHE was built solely by donation and is sustained entirely by donation. All children who present at the CCHE are treated free irrespective of their race, creed or class.

The founders of the CCHE were inspired by the amazing work being done at Saint Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Tennessee, USA. This hospital costs US$2.8 million a day to run, but no patient is charged anything, because the entire cost is covered by donations. St. Jude was founded by a comedian Danny Thomas in 1962, in league with a medical doctor, Lemuel Diggs and the support of public-spirited Americans. Danny Thomas built St Jude in fulfilment of a vow he made in a church in Detroit, USA to build a shrine if he becomes successful. That shrine is St Jude Hospital, which has helped to improve the survival rate of childhood cancer in US from 20 per cent in 1962 to 80 per cent. The survival rate of the most common form of leukaemia also improved from four per cent in 1962 to 94 per cent today.

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World Cancer Day 2021 gives us an opportunity to support the on-going effort to establish Nigeria’s first CCC, for optimal and comprehensive cancer care in Nigeria, through the ↓↑GivingTide Global Trust.

According to Bill Gates, “You do not need to be the chair of a large foundation to have an impact. Risk takers need backers. Good ideas need evangelists. Forgotten communities need advocates. And whether your chief resource is volunteer time or hard-earned dollars, for a relatively small investment catalytic philanthropy can make a big impact.”

Let us ponder on the fact that if one in seven Nigerians donated only N1,000 (one thousand naira) each to the ↓↑GivingTide Global Trust, Nigeria’s first CCC would be fully ready within seven months. Therefore, there is no reason for the holocaust of preventable catastrophic deaths from cancer. Together, it is possible!

Let’s ACT! (Attack Cancer Today! Attack Cancer Together!! Attack Cancer Totally!!!).

I am waging the BIG WAR Against Cancer and I will not rest until the BIG WAR is won. Will you join me?

*Dr. Abia Nzelu (Executive Secretary, ↑↓GivingTide international); can be reached via info@givingtide.org

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