Beating Breast Cancer
Mrs Kehinde Gbelee, Mrs Ebunola Anozie and Ms Della Ogunleye are the three most unlikely women to sit in the same room. Mrs Kehinde is a bespectacled academic, cool, collected and cerebral she self corrects like an iPhone as she speaks, her length sentences peppered with “rather than”s and “perhaps.” Mrs Anozie is classically beautiful and eerily quiet, her eyes sweeping along the room like an analyst saving everything and saying nothing, her hard-won smiles unfurling slowly like night-blooming jasmine. Ms Della Ogunleye is a garrulous sun, energetic, self-sustaining and pulling everyone towards her with her effusive warmth, speaking in sentences too quickly even for native English speakers to keep up with, her smile permanent and her hands always reaching out to give a reassuring touch. With such opposing personalities, no one would guess these women have more in common than most people.
Each of them has been touched by cancer.
In 1985, Breast Cancer Awareness Month was founded as a partnership between the American Cancer Society and the pharmaceutical division of Imperial Chemical Industries. Almost 34 years later, it has become a cultural phenomenon. The pink ribbon which has now become synonymous with cancer survivor and charity marathons is also everywhere but long before it was so much as an epiphany, Mrs Anozie was founding C.O.P.E (Care Organization and Public Enlightenment).
“When we first started in 1995, we were chastised. We were told we were jobless, we did not know what we were doing because it was a new thing in Nigeria at the time. Now we have centres everywhere.”
C.O.P.E- Mrs Anozie’s brainchild organisation to help raise cancer awareness and create a space for cancer survivors to share their experience, now has over 40 surviving members but has touched millions of lives. Providing everything from screenings to advocacy to clinical breast examinations to spa days, Mrs Anozie is determined to be an advocate for cancer survivors despite not being a cancer survivor herself but having faced it up close and personal.
“In 1970, Lagos State sponsored my mother to go for treatment for colorectal cancer outside the country in Oxford, England. Unfortunately, a few weeks later a telegram came announcing her death and her body was flown back. My siblings and I were quite young and it was very traumatic for the entire family.”
But her mother wouldn’t be the only parent she lost to cancer. In 1995, she would lose her father to stomach cancer, the result of a Russian carcinogenic tea called Caga Soft Tea. The Minister of Health Professor Ikoye Ransom Kuti would issue a public warning but by then it was already too late for her Anozie’s father.
“When he passed it was quite traumatic and I must say it humbled me. It was a loss I don’t think I can ever forget.”
That same year, in October, Mrs Anozie on a trip to the UK felt a twinge of pain in her left breast.
“I went to have a mammogram immediately but was told I was too young. Luckily, I eventually found a doctor who told me it was just stress.”
But the spark was lit and she spent the rest of her holiday calling cancer centres and organisations to find out more. By the time her holiday was over, she came back with a suitcase full of cancer books and a resolve to start a cancer organization. She quit her finance job and fast forward 24 years later, she’s the founder of one of Nigeria’s best cancer support and awareness organisations helping some of the 41,913 Nigerian women who develop cancer every year.
But these dreary statistics, Ms Della Ogunleye argues, while they should be public knowledge shouldn’t be all everyone thinks about when they talk about cancer and the conversation around it should be more positive.
“Sometimes I say cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me because it gave me the opportunity to take care of myself.”
After being diagnosed and undergoing a mastectomy, Ms Ogunleye upped her gym regimen and found happiness. Now, she’s an exercise advocate.
“Most of the time I post everything when I’m in the gym, it’s not just to say ah look at me, it’s to help and inspire others.” But she doesn’t just advocate for exercise, Ogunleye is currently advocating for more black voices in the cancer sphere.
“I used to go for group therapy meetings and I was the only black person there. Black people are less likely to attend breast screenings because we always think it’s nothing to do with us and by the time they catch it, it’s too late. You have people being diagnosed and they’re not telling anybody. A few years ago, a friend whispered to me that she had something to tell me, I thought she would say something like that ‘your boyfriend is gay.’ Instead she said, ‘I have breast cancer,’ I was like, ‘what’s the big deal?’ If you don’t tell anybody the doctors here don’t know how to treat anyone because they don’t see the symptoms and you’re shying away.”
She always wanted a black person to hold her hand and because she didn’t have one she became one.
“I don’t know much about prevention, if I did, I wouldn’t be here. No one told me any stories about anyone having cancer so I didn’t know. So I’ve decided to take on the role for myself. I told myself whatever it takes I will do. Till today I still get messages on my Instagram saying, ‘oh you’re on the front of another cancer web page.’ Because if you don’t see another black person you won’t be able to relate. It’s teaching people that they are not alone.”
Now a globally recognised cancer advocate, Ms Ogunleye sees her future as only going up.
“The first black person I met with breast cancer was Kehinde who said she had hers 20 years ago, mine is 9, if she’s survived then I will survive. Each year I am counting to 20 years so I can eventually celebrate!”
Mrs Kehinde Gbelee, a long term cancer survivor going 20 years strong, says early prevention saved her life but depression almost took it…
Grab The Guardian Life magazine today to read the full interview….