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.
“I always self-examined and found the lump myself. I underwent an examination in the UK and was told everything was fine. I flew back home only to get a call from my husband saying I had to come back immediately. I knew something was wrong. I remember asking him am I going to die?”
After finding out she had breast cancer, she underwent chemotherapy and radiotherapy for weeks in UK and joined a support group that left her energized but the second her plane wheels touched the ground on Nigerian soil, Mrs Gbele felt something was different. “I wasn’t happy, I didn’t feel like doing anything. I didn’t share it with anybody. I didn’t know something was wrong with me but on a visit to a doctor he asked how I was feeling and I told him.”
Depression affects over 85% of cancer patients, but Kehinde didn’t know she had it till she started exercising again. But even without depression insecurities still set in. Having had a mastectomy her relationship with her body changed. “I remember I walked into a restaurant with my husband, there was an Aunty I hadn’t spoken to in a while who spotted us. She left her table and came up to me and said hello. Immediately she left, ‘I turned to my husband and said she knows I have one breast that’s why she came.’ That’s the kind of thing that affects you. Once my two daughters were playing, and the elder one was egging the younger one on “tell mommy tell mommy” and she asked me how come your chest is flat on this side? So it’s those kinds of things but At the end of the day there’s a gratitude that you’re still alive.”
But even without pressures from within, pressures from without still bore their weight.
“There’s a social stigma. When I was first coming out to speak about cancer, people even close family members asked me why am I coming out to speak about cancer? One of my daughters when she was younger after school came home crying and she told me that some of her friends were gossiping about her saying that her mother was going to die because she has breast cancer. These are little children so they must’ve heard their moms discuss that. And that’s why many people don’t want to come out and tell people they have breast cancer. I know someone who wanted to marry and the mother died from breast cancer, and the family were telling her, ‘this one that your mother died from breast cancer we don’t have breast cancer in our family’ which I think is unfair and inhuman. But this is what happens in our Nigerian society.”
Now an advocate for her fellow breast cancer survivors, she urges the government to improve infrastructure not just to increase the quality of life but to save it. “They’re trying but they need to do a lot more. You hear things like the radiotherapy machine is not working or the head of the radiotherapy machine is broken, people have to travel. Imagine being sick and you have to travel to Ibadan to do radiotherapy and that’s like 30 days. So they need to do a lot more and cancer is not respective of creed, gender or social status if you have cancer you have cancer so the government needs to be more involved because it’s everybody’s problem. Some people lose their jobs because they have to take time off to get treatment, and they are the lucky ones because they have the money to get treatment.”
All three women, each with their own personal experiences all agree on one thing: while Nigeria needs to do more, there are things that need to be lessened or stopped altogether.
“We need to speak to men and women in the same breath about breast cancer,” Gbelee urges as men are also susceptible to breast cancer, 1 in 100 compared to women at 1 in 12. “And we need to stop myths like thinking cancer is a curse or selling things like shark cartilage as cancer cures.”
“We need to stop the belief that cancer is contagious or breastfeeding will induce it.” Mrs Anozie states.
“Most importantly, we need to stop the stigma. But everything is so stigmatized. If you don’t speak how people know there’s help out there? The earlier you catch it the better. We need to break down the barriers and talk, talk, talk!” Ogunleye concludes.