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‘Journeying through childhood cancer with my daughter inspired Osunyameye’

By Ijeoma Thomas-Odia
26 February 2022   |   2:50 am
Following the International Childhood Cancer Day commemorated on February 15, there’s no better time to share the travails of a workingwoman, Hilda Manyo Dickson, whose daughter was diagnosed with pediatric cancer...

Hilda Manyo Dickson

Following the International Childhood Cancer Day commemorated on February 15, there’s no better time to share the travails of a workingwoman, Hilda Manyo Dickson, whose daughter was diagnosed with pediatric cancer at 21 months. A finance professional of over two decades, is a positive mindset strategist, and a John Maxwell certified speaker and coach. An Accounting graduate from the University of Calabar in Nigeria is also a fellow of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA), a global body for professional accountants.
While living through unimaginable personal challenges of her own, she was inspired to author a book, Osunyameye. This has become another passion for her as she continues to advocate for better support for victims. In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, Dickson shares her experience dealing with infertility, nursing a baby with childhood cancer, life as an author and her advocacy programme.

You once battled infertility in the early stage of your marriage. Could you share with us your experiences on this journey?
MY fertility journey was a faith builder. Sometime in 1999, I had a cervical polyp, and a doctor advised I should date an old man and have a baby, as it might be difficult for me to get pregnant later in life. That suggestion put me off, and I never went back to him for follow-up checks.

So, you can imagine getting married a few years later and being unable to get pregnant. The first year was not a real bother, as my husband and I had agreed to try for a baby a year after our marriage. Subsequently, it became a bit of a concern because I suffered dysmenorrhoea and got teased each month as people always assumed; I was pregnant.

Somewhere down the line, I got used to it and focused on the Word of God. I did not get irritated when people asked me questions about getting pregnant. I was comfortable enough to make jokes out of the situation, as I just knew it would happen whenever it happened unless it didn’t feature as God’s plan for me.

I remember one of my senior colleagues that casually said something like ‘keep smiling and twisting your waist, if you like don’t settle down and have a baby.’ Ordinarily, that would have hurt me, but I didn’t as much as flinch. I just took time out later that day to educate her on how to talk, especially when one is not knowledgeable about a subject.

In the fourth year, a doctor categorically told us it was impossible for us to have a child naturally. It reminded me yet again of the Word of God that says, ‘there shall be none barren in the land neither male nor female.’ I was not perturbed but had a strange kind of peace. Through the journey, I learned several things that helped in developing my approach to future trials because, let’s face it, it just doesn’t end.

So, your first child was diagnosed with paediatric cancer as a toddler. How did you manage the situation?
This was one challenge I never saw coming. I had heard a few stories about cancer, but had never really paid any attention. It sounded foreign and like something only adults dealt with, probably because of some lifestyle choices. How naïve I was till it came knocking.

We went from hospital to hospital here in Nigeria and could not get a diagnosis. My daughter’s blood level was depleting really fast, and a blood transfusion was recommended. In the process of looking for a suitable blood type, I was a candidate to be considered until the pre-screening test showed I was pregnant. We eventually travelled out of the country and that was where we got the actual diagnosis of stage 4 Neuroblastoma.

It was devastating for us as a family. It brought about a separation, as I had to have an extended stay in America. There, I realised why cancer was referred to as a monster. The treatments did not stop at ravaging one’s body, but were extremely expensive too. I appreciated the need for good governance as it filtered to every aspect of the system.

What informed your decision to put your experience into a book?
What inspired the book was the vacuum I discovered while going through the childhood cancer journey with my daughter. I was looking for a book during the stem-cell transplant phase of her treatment, wanted a book I could read or someone willing to share his or her story with absolutely no filters. I needed to anticipate the full picture of what was ahead of us. I needed someone that would be vulnerable enough to share their experiences, emotions and everything in between but it was difficult.

So, I had doctors giving me a prognosis. I had one or two people share versions of their journey but I needed that believer that would stand up and reignite that hope in me. I struggled to find that in the form I desired. It was from that point of need, where you know that there is a problem and you are like, what is the solution? That was when I made a vow to God that I would document my story to touch many lives and reignite hope.

Subsequently, when I shared that dream, many could connect with the dream and nudge me on to follow it through. That was a vow I made in 2008 and it is coming to pass in 2021. So, you can imagine being pregnant with that dream for a long.

What would this spur you to do next?
I have several plans ahead of me. Sometime ago, I visited the children oncology unit of the University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) to ascertain how we can support children between ages zero to 19 years of ages. I wrote my book to channel profits from sales to support families dealing with cancer.

The whole idea in the short term is to provide financial and emotional support to as many children as we can that are dealing with cancer as well as support causes that could help put an end to the menace.

Can you tell us what you saw at LUTH when you visited?
I must be sincere. When I stepped into LUTH, I had goose bumps. I started by thanking God for provision. When you have the opportunity to experience medical care outside this country, then you see the level we are, you just can’t help but wish for more. Wish for a bigger Nigeria, wish for a better Nigeria.

When you are out of this country, at least, where my daughter got her treatment, you will think that you are in a five-star hotel. Beyond that, the medical personnel are not just dedicated but are also professional and equipped. In Nigeria, we have a lot of dedicated people no doubt but how equipped are they for the task ahead? Even in interacting with patients, they buy everything themselves, up to gloves, cotton wool, saline drops, just name it.

What advice do you have for our government based on your experience?
If you ask me, let’s start with the federal institutions. Most of the indigent and Low-income earners would rush to the government facilities. As a country, let’s put those places in order. I know that a lot of individuals assist. When you get to LUTH, you will know that a lot of work has gone in but there is room for more. The bed space there was too small for the number of cases. There were three people sharing a small room. That wouldn’t happen when you are dealing with cancer in the developed world given the compromised immune system of a cancer patient.

A lot of times people die not immediately from cancer but infections. Whenever cancer patients are being treated, because their immune system is compromised, the place needs to be almost sterile. It needs to be germ-free. Ideally, sharing of rooms should be avoided because one person’s mistakes or filthiness could be life threatening to the other person.

Let the government improve that sector, provide drugs, medical equipment, train medical personnel and people taking care of the children. A lot of government officials travel out of Nigeria on regular basis and why can’t they be intentional about bringing what they learnt outside the country home?
A lot of medical professionals love their job and are ready to impact lives, and I will advise the government to equip the hospitals and help the medical professionals fulfil their call of saving lives.

Could you share with us what it feels to be a financial expert?
As a teenager, I had this lofty dream of partnering with my brother to own a hospital. His plan was to be a medical doctor, so becoming a Pharmacist was a natural choice. Down the line, I realised it was a five-year course and one thing I was certain about was that I couldn’t spend five years in the University. I just could not wait to start working and earning money.

Thankfully, a friend’s sister visited during one of our visiting days back in Federal Government Girl’s College, Benin; she was beautifully dressed and wore a lovely Anita Baker haircut. I was intrigued by her composure and went on to ask what course she studied in the University. The answer ‘Accounting’ changed the trajectory for me.

So, you can imagine what I applied for when the Joint Admissions Matriculation Board (JAMB) forms was released not withstanding all the coaching I had gotten from my mum who was a Guidance Counsellor – Accounting. When asked why I switched from pharmacy, I simply said I did not like the smell of medications.

My career kicked off from the banking sector where I worked for six years as an operations staff. I barely had a life after work, as most times, I did not leave the bank before 9pm. I longed to move to the Oil and Gas sector, which took me to Port Harcourt where I lived. It took several hits and misses to land a job in the energy sector.

As you might have deduced from my introduction, I was interested in being independent, working and making money to cater for life’s needs. That opened my mind into the world of finance. It evolved from making money, to managing it, multiplying it, and sharing the knowledge with others to help them achieve financial stability.

So yes, like many other young girls imagining what my professional life would look like was relatively easy, the aspects I forgot to plan for were the challenges that I could encounter along the way.

As career woman, what have been your life challenges and experiences?
It has not been a plug and play experience but one with several hurdles that have all cumulated into learning expositions for me. Some experiences are not directly linked to work yet are intertwined because irrespective of your many challenges, you have one mind to grapple with them all. Trying for a baby was one of them as I dealt with infertility for almost five years, when I eventually got pregnant, my direct boss and another friend all in the same unit were all pregnant so you can imagine how inconvenient that would have been.

Twenty-one months down the line, they diagnosed this same child with cancer. I had to be out of work for almost a year and even years after, my absence continued to be a sore point during the annual appraisals. Moreover, in a male dominated environment, it’s difficult to do a direct comparison between males and females, which warranted extra, work on my side irrespective of the issues I had to deal with.

Through it all with the Almighty God guiding me, I juggled all the responsibilities while staying consistent and focused with all my deliverables. Over time, my commitment and consistency paid off.

How are you able to juggle life as a finance expert, running the infertility campaign, childhood cancer, and still holding your role as a wife and mother?
It sure sounds like a lot to grapple with. I am very versatile and gifted in multitasking but as much as it would have felt good to say I am a superwoman doing it all alone, be assured that is not the case as it would be deceptive to fellow ladies out there.

This question, however, leads me to two topics I enjoy talking about – teamwork and the power of networks. I leverage on those a lot. I don’t think twice about asking for help. All hands are on deck right from the youngest child to friends, acquaintances and third parties. We can overestimate our capabilities but truth be told, we all know our strengths.

I stay on my lane, look for willing hands with similar values or vision to collaborate with and together we achieve goals. Another tool I use is time blocking where I set my activities into time blocks…So, my typical day is wake up at 4.30 am pray, exercise or simply go for a walk then focus on my 9 to 5, then at night and weekends spend time with my family rubbing minds on how to progress the various causes and late at night, I spend time birthing my dreams.

What advice do you have for women on financial independence, especially in time like this where cost of living is steadily on the increase?
Be guided by the three mysteries of money: making it, managing it and multiplying it. Knowledge is power. Get financially literate and prepare in advance for when life happens, because it will certainly happen. Don’t get easily swayed by the fashion trends, but let your heart connect with your head.

Make smart money decisions, save, invest and, where possible, live below your means. Frugal living goes a long way in preparing you for eventualities outside your control. Times will keep getting tougher; it’s never been easier as far as I remember. Complaints about money have been a constant. Brace up and, while at it, have a lot of fun creating memories.