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Two breast cancer survivors: ‘The cost of cancer treatment is killing most people’

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Eno Essien and Nnnenna Obasi

In commemoration of the Breast Cancer Awareness month, marked every October, Guardian Woman spoke to two women, Eno Essien and Nnnenna Obasi who both survived breast cancer and are thriving today. They bare it all in these interviews, from discovering lumps in their breasts, getting the diagnosis, treatment and getting their lives back together.

Eno Essien: ‘I’ve Made Some Lifestyle Changes, I Eat Healthier’

How and when did you discover that you had cancer?
It all began seven years ago. I was having a seemingly perfect life then. I had just turned 30, my business was five years that same year and we had held a celebration. I got a license to run and also got recognized by the Future Awards. As part of our expansion program, we established a Port Harcourt branch and I went there for the take-off.

As I was lying in bed ready to sleep, my hand rested on my breast and I noticed a lump. I immediately checked the other breast and there was nothing there so I called my mom who is a retired nurse to inform her and she immediately dismissed my fears, asking me to go to sleep and that when I returned to Lagos she’d take a look but she never did.

A few months after, I went on holiday to the UK and thought to go do a proper check with a breast specialist. They observed the lump and wanted a further biopsy but my mom refused and asked me to return to Nigeria assuring me there was nothing wrong with me. You know these types of things don’t happen to you or people near you (laughing). About seven months later, I spoke with a general surgeon in Lagos who advised that I take out the lump, which I did, and the specimen was sent for histology. Two weeks after that was when I was given the devastating news by my mom and pastor.

What was your initial reaction to the news? What came to your mind?
Truth be told, I was consumed with fear. I was blank. I didn’t know people survived cancer and that made it worse. The shock. In fact, I died. My upbringing as a Christian and my faith in Jesus saw me through the dark and uncertain days that followed. Those were really days of roller coaster of emotions and it became clear to me that I had to turn to God and trust Him and believe every promise in my Bible. I bought a new 4-in-1 translation Bible and that turned out the best decision. I remember what my Pastor said that faith is endangered by security but secured in the face of danger.

What first steps did you take towards treatment after the diagnosis?
My family and I wanted the best care and, based on advice from the surgeon in Lagos, we left Nigeria for the UK for medicare. We met with one of the breast surgeons in the UK who, incidentally is a Nigerian and gave us a rundown on the way the treatment would go.

What method of treatment did you use? What was the general experience like for you?
I had a lumpectomy; the lump and the surrounding tissues and the lymph nodes suspected to have been infiltrated by the tumour were removed. This was followed by chemotherapy and radiotherapy. The chemotherapy agent is quite toxic and probably the worse thing you can do to the human body and we said no to it. My mum was vehement about it; she said it was a bad gamble, that it was too destructive for me to be subjected to it. You see medicine is practiced differently in some places. They did not dismiss us nor become angry with us. They assembled their entire team, surgeon, oncologist, nurses, everyone and invited my family members and me and painstakingly educated us. Yes it was toxic, yes it was destructive but medicine has made a lot of improvement over the years. They showed us why what they were offering us was the best option, so at last, we agreed and we started chemo. The treatment was terrible. I lost all my hair, all my nails came out from the nail bed, my tongue was black, eating became an impossible task, and I suffered neuropathy. It was so bad that I was unable to sleep on the bed. I would fill the bathtub with water and sleep inside it overnight and have my family take turns to check up on me so I don’t drown. Drinking water was such a challenge. It was a difficult unforgettable experience, but God’s grace saw me through.

Why did you decide to go abroad for treatment?
I believed I would get better Medicare there. Extremely expensive as it was, the good Lord provided and because we had a family there, expenses like accommodation, transportation, and general maintenance were taken care of. I did not receive treatment in Nigeria so I really can’t comment on how it’s done here.
All I can say is that God, through the medical team in the hospital I used, gave me very good care.

There’s a lot of stigmas attached to cancer, how did you deal with it?
I am in control of my thoughts and don’t give people that power. I did not apply for the sickness. It came without invitation, so if anyone points one finger at me, the four others point at the person. Really, I am not bothered by stigmatization.

What was your family’s reaction to your diagnosis? Was there support for you?
My family was created specially by God. Without bragging, I think everyone needs a family like mine. They gave me more strength, courage, and support than I could have asked for. I never went to the hospital for an appointment alone. I went with my whole family. We stood together as a team, we fought hard and won.

Eno

Did you at any point feel like throwing in the towel?
Never. That was not even an option.

How would you say you overcame the cancer mountain, seeing as many women die from it yearly?
It was just God’s grace. I held on strongly to His Word. I used my faith and trusted Him completely. I was confident I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. I took control of my mind and thought positive thoughts only. I also availed myself of the best Medicare I could get. Seeing that God has used doctors to cure over the years I decided to go to the hospital for treatment. I also lived a really normal life. I had a great time and honestly, cancer made me a happier person. I stayed happy more of the time and did a lot of fun things with my family. They took me on boat cruises, adventure, and fun places. My mum who had relocated with me will go anywhere to get and prepare any food that I can imagine. I have the best family in the world.

Tell us the cost of treatment, how did you fund it?
(Laughing) Do you intend giving me a refund? It was a very expensive treatment and I don’t know which kills faster between the sickness and the bills. My family and I footed the bills with a few good friends. I spoke to the hospital and negotiated a payment plan and they were extremely supportive. But when you are scheduled for an appointment or procedure you better show up with the payment receipt. Yes, it was very expensive but not more expensive than my life.

How has life been after recovery? Have you made any changes to your lifestyle?
I am living and loving and making every day count. I am a truly happy person. I’ve made some lifestyle changes, I eat healthier and I binge too because God has given me all things that pertain to life and godliness. I incorporated exercise as well. Above all, I hold on strongly to God’s word and His promises.

If women think/discover they’ve got cancer, what would you tell them to do?
Just breathe, you will be fine. Don’t go on Google or search your Bible for healing scriptures. Get medical care, go to the hospital. When you do start treatment, please cut your hair. Seeing my hair fall was very difficult. Stay happy because your strong spirit will see you through this infirmity. You can also reach out to me, I am happy to hold your hand and walk the journey with you.

What active roles do you think the government and NGOs can play in advocacy, research, accessing treatment and so on?
This is an extremely expensive treatment and many people can’t afford it. Treatment and funds should be accessible.

Many women practically give up when they hear they’ve got cancer and go to the wrong places for help, how would you give them hope?
You are sick, go to the hospital. That is the only place people with the sickness are treated. That is why hospitals are built. Then back up the treatment with prayers. Have faith and believe that you will overcome and stay there because a double-minded man would not receive it.

Nnenna

Nnenna Obasi: ‘There should be cancer centres in most local governments so that more people can easily access care’

How and when did you discover that you had cancer?
I discovered it myself. I was opportune to know about self-examination and I did it regularly. One day in June 2013, as I was examining my breasts, I felt a lump in my left breast and that was where it all began.

What was your initial reaction to the news? What came to your mind?
The moment I felt it, I went to my husband and told him to touch it for me in case my mind was playing tricks on me. He did and felt something as well and urged me to go to the hospital immediately. I never thought this would happen to me. At the hospital, I was referred to an oncologist and I became very afraid, it was beginning to look real. I had a medical student still in school then and when I explained everything to him, he encouraged me to go to the hospital and cast my fears aside. At that point, I was still thinking, ‘this cannot be happening to me. Why me?’ When it was confirmed, I burst into tears and cried hysterically but the doctor calmed me down and said everything would be okay.

What was the treatment like for you?
After the doctor calmed me down, he explained how the treatment would go. He said I needed to get a mastectomy immediately because the biopsy of the cultured lump showed I was at stage three already. It was very bad but everyone told me to calm down and I would pull through. On December 23rd 2013, I had the mastectomy. The first oncologist I saw (hospital name withheld) told me, ‘madam go home and come back in six months time!” If I had listened to him, I would have died. I called my son who advised me to go to another hospital at once. The whole thing started in June and by December, I had the mastectomy done. After the mastectomy, I had to wait a month to heal before starting chemotherapy and waited another month before starting radiotherapy. Chemotherapy is injections given to kill whatever cancer cells are left in the body after mastectomy while radiotherapy is like a ray of light stationed on the affected part to kill the cancer cells. It’s only God that helps one survive it. It’s the worst thing in the world and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. I was going for radiotherapy everyday for 18 working days, it was very difficult for my family and me. Chemo and radiotherapy was bad, my hair fell off, I lost my nails and became extremely dark; I looked really terrible. I was so weak all the time, I lost a lot of blood and suffered general breakdown of my body’s system.

How easy/difficult was it accessing treatment?
To survive cancer in Nigeria, it’s only God that can help you because it’s not easy. I did the whole process in LUTH but when it was time to do radiotherapy, the machine packed up and I had to go use Eko Hospital’s own. I would leave home 3:00am and on getting there, I would be no 10 or 11. At that time, almost all the radiotherapy machines packed up in the country and there was so much pressure and waiting time at Eko, it was tough. For one to make use of the machine was hell. Some people that couldn’t wait went all the way to Ghana to get it done because all the machines broke down almost at the same time, it was a terrible experience.

What was the reaction from friends and family, was there support for you?
The support was overwhelming, it kept me alive. My husband and especially my kids encouraged me, told me I won’t die. My husband was there for me financially, emotionally, physically, spiritually, psychologically and every other way you can think of.

There is a lot of stigma associated with cancer, how do you deal with it?
Sometimes ago, someone was afraid to touch me and asked if it’s contagious. People see us and think we’re going to die. This is why many survivors keep quiet. Even family members are afraid to come near one, some claim I offended God and was being punished. These are some of the false stories that people peddle that encourage stigma.

Did you at any point feel like giving up?
Never and that was because of the way my immediate family supported me. They didn’t give me a chance to give up, they all stood by me. Even during chemo when I thought, ‘it’s all over, I’m going to die,’ they kept on encouraging me and never allowed me feel down and out. To encourage myself, I looked up to God and was always praying. Even when I lost my voice and couldn’t speak, I prayed in my mind.

How has life been for you after recovery, have you made any changes to your lifestyle?
I’ve made a lot of changes. I exercise everyday starting from 5am. I eat 20 per cent cooked food and 80 percent vegetables. For instance, if I want to eat swallow, which is usually oatmeal and very small size, I finish it up with plenty vegetables. I don’t take sugar in any form because a survivor must avoid sugar at all costs. If I want to take tea or ogi (pap), I use dates and cocoa to “sweeten” them. Also, I’ve gotten really close to God more than before. I have been given a second chance at life and I don’t want to misuse it. Now, if you offend me, I will forgive you before you even ask for forgiveness from me. Also, I’m more watchful with my health. As a survivor, you cannot afford to relax because cancer re-occurs in people, even years after so I am always on the lookout, I’m never relaxed.

How can more people pull through as you have done?
(Sighing) For anyone to survive cancer in Nigeria, you must spend through your nose. My husband sold all his properties to fund my treatment. But I thank God because if he didn’t have what to sell, what would have become of me? If you want to survive, you may most likely have to sell your properties and almost turn to a beggar. I’m not sure how much we spent but it was well over N5 million. I want to thank Mrs. Ebun Anozie of the Care Organisation Public Enlightenment (COPE) Foundation; she’s a wonderful person running a wonderful organisation that is saving lives. May God bless her for us because she has come through for many of us.

In light of this, what do you think the government and NGOs do to help more people access treatment?
There should be cancer centres in most local governments so that more people can easily access it. Also, drugs and treatment should be subsidized; the cost is killing most people. Furthermore, equipment should be made available because even if you have money, if there’s no equipment to treat you, your money cannot save you. Our cancer machines are obsolete; government needs to look into this urgently.

How would you give newly diagnosed women hope?
Early detection is key and cancer is not a death sentence. Using myself as an example, I didn’t waste time when I was diagnosed. Run to an oncologist immediately if you’ve been diagnosed. Finance is a major problem for most people but I beg you, go round begging for funds if you have to. Go to your church, family and friends and beg if you have to. People survive in so far as you get medical help; it’s detected and treated early. You will not die; don’t let anybody put fear into you. Don’t tell yourself ‘it’s not my portion’ and start praying. Yes, prayer is good but get medical help first and add prayer to it.


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