Cancer survivors narrate inspiring stories

About three years ago, Williamson O’Dioyor was fighting the battle of his life with cancer. He was confronted with the options of succumbing to untimely death or fighting his way out of its cold hands. The 47-year-old chose to live – for his wife and four pretty kids – and he was all out to achieve his decision. He spent all the money he had toiled for over the years to get rid of a tumour affecting his rectum. Apart from millions of naira he parted with, it took donations from friends and relations to pay for the series of treatments he had before he was relieved of the pains he had endured for years.

Apart from the cash, the Cross River State indigene from Calabar South, invested hope and faith to remain strong throughout the turbulent period. In a country where many liken the ailment to a death sentence owing to the high cost of treatments and lack of access to quality health care, O’Dioyor did not give in to his fears.

The colorectal cancer that gulped the assets of the offshore engineer within eight months of treatment started in 2013 as mere stomach cramps. “I went to different hospitals and they told me it was ulcer. I was having serious pains,” the engineer said during a conversation with Saturday PUNCH earlier in the week at Ikeja, the Lagos State capital.

Cancer survivors’ inspiring stories

O’Dioyor sat mute for some moment, gently scratching his head. “In January 2016, the pain became so serious that I could hardly climb staircases,” he continued. “I went to a lab for a test and I was told my packed cell volume (a measurement of the proportion of blood that is made up of cells) was very low. I rushed to a hospital in Ojodu (a neigbouring community). A doctor I met with also said it was ulcer as I had been told before. My sister advised me to go to Lagos University Teaching Hospital, Idi-Araba.”

At LUTH, an endoscopy was run on the father of four to examine his digestive tract; yet, the result did not point to cancer. It eventually dawned on him that he was down with cancer after a colonoscopy later revealed the cancerous tumour in his rectum, he said.

“I went for the first surgery in April 2016 and it went well. But after four days, my pulse increased and I was rushed back to the hospital. It was discovered that the suture had loosened. They rectified it and gave me more treatment. I later went to a private hospital for a final surgery because LUTH workers were on strike. Since September 2016, I have been fit, but I still go for checkups. My doctor said I have to be on watch list for about 10 years. Even though the doctor advised that I could go back to work, I don’t want to push my luck too far because of the rigours of the offshore work,” O’Dioyor recalled.

As harrowing as his experience was, he waded through the stormy time, fighting off the scourge with all his strength. Though he had to start all over again after losing his wealth to the disease, O’Dioyor had taken solace in the fact that he emerged victorious from the fangs of death.

“I cannot really quantify how much I spent. The kind of work I did then required me to be at work to earn. I sold my SUV, which I had bought three months earlier for N3.2m and spent the N4.5m savings in my bank account. My wife, friends and families also supported me. Now, I go about in public transport, but I am happy that I am alive. I am into product marketing now with a small capital and I hope God will restore my losses.

“Being told that you have cancer is like getting your death sentence. But what worked for me was that I had a positive mindset. I advise people battling with it not to give up. They have to fight it. I assured myself that cancer would not kill me. The more downcast you are, the lesser your chances to successfully fight the disease. I got to know that sugar is a catalyst for cancer. I stopped taking sugar and started taking a lot of remedies and vegetables. I am now stronger,” he added.

Mrs Evelyn Okoloh, a former worker with a first generation bank in Lagos, had a similar encounter with the deathly disease some eight years ago when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

The 43-year-old woman had gone for mammography while she was pregnant with a set of twins. It was found that she had a tumour, a discovery she found shocking. The Delta-State indigene went for another test – biopsies this time round – which confirmed her fears.

“After the confirmation, I had a surgery in December 2010 and in January 2011; I gave birth to a set of twins. My babies were given formula. I resumed treatment and at a point, I had to go to a hospital in India. I came back and was confirmed cancer-free. I went back to my former lifestyle and three months later, there was a relapse,” she said.

The mother of three, who lives in Magboro, a suburb bordering Ogun and Lagos states, was told by doctors that she needed to go through a fresh round of surgeries, chemotherapy and radiotherapy after spending about N11m on the previous treatment programme.

She shunned the advice and resorted to conventional treatment, having realised that the relapse was occasioned by her lifestyle. Afterwards, Okolo had been able to stay healthy, but the positive result did not just happen; it was achieved at a cost.

Okoloh stated, “I asked myself ‘what is the assurance that there won’t be a relapse again?’ I started using conventional treatment. I discovered it was a question of my lifestyle. I was purely taking vegetables and fruits for a month and I started getting better. I visit hospital regularly for checkups.

“At times, I would be told my Vitamin B level is low. Even if you have no history of health challenge, once you do a checkup, it is normal that there will be one or two observations that the doctor will make which you need to work on.

“I spent about N11m on the medical treatment. All my savings went into it and my husband supported me too. There were also donations from families and friends. I am still spending a lot to remain healthy. I am on a natural lifestyle. I take a lot of supplements and spend about N20,000 every week to buy what I eat. My view is that cancer is not a death sentence; there is life after cancer. I heard people say cancer patients don’t survive, but I assured myself that I would survive it. I had inner strength in me; fought it and became stronger.”

In 2009, Chizoba Atumonye, 32, was in final year at the Federal University of Technology, Owerri, Imo State, when she began to see sores on her knee and ankle. After receiving treatments at a hospital in her hometown in Aba, Abia State, the pain in the ankle receded, but she was left with cramps in the knee.

The graduate of Chemical Engineering did not take the ache very seriously, suppressing it with local ointment each time it recurred. But in January 2018, some months after she concluded her master’s degree programme at the University of Lagos, the pain worsened.

In the following months, her husband, friends and relations coughed up millions of naira to help her treat what later turned out to be bone cancer.

She recalled, “My knee started swelling and I couldn’t sleep at night. I visited three different traditional bonesetters; all of them gave conflicting reasons. I would use pain relief drugs but after four or five hours, the pain would start again. In August 2018, I decided to go to National Orthopaedic Hospital, Igbobi, and it was discovered that I had the tumour. I was booked for a surgery to remove the tumour. Two days before the operation, they did biopsies to know whether the tumour was benign or malignant. It was discovered that it was malignant.

“They had to cut the affected part of my thigh bone off and remove the tumour. I went for prosthesis and it was really a tough decision. I am still walking on crutches. My doctors have assured me that I will soon walk with the leg perfectly. The biopsies cost about N300,000. For the surgery, I was charged N2.5m. The prosthesis was N1.6m. I still go for physiotherapy and each session costs N3,000. I am at the 20th session now and I still have 10 more to do. It was a huge sum and it really affected my husband’s business. He is still struggling to get back on his feet.”

The myth behind cancer in Nigeria is one that generates a great deal of apprehension among people. For instance, talking about cancer before Mrs Patricia Okon, a schoolteacher and resident of Olowora – a riverside neighbourhood in Isheri, Lagos – was akin to reminding her that end was in sight.

It required persuasion from doctors and family members to mitigate her fears when she first learnt that the tumour in her left hand was cancerous. The 43-year-old woman subsequently had a successful surgery and is currently being monitored. And this would be done till February 13, 2019, when the plaster of Paris on her hand might be removed.

“Anytime you discuss cancer with her, she is always afraid. We had to tell her it was just a bone tumour to reduce her apprehension. She is getting better now and has started using the hand to work,” Mrs Okon’s husband, Christopher, told Saturday PUNCH.

He added, “We spent about N800,000 which I borrowed from my workplace. We paid N200,000 for the scan alone. We went to a hospital in Enugu. She was diagnosed and we were told that it was not cancer. The pain persisted and we went to the National Orthopaedic Hospital, Igbobi. It was confirmed that it was cancer after series of tests were done.”

A businesswoman in Ikorodu, North-East of Lagos, Mrs Bolanle Animashaun, had noticed a lump on her upper right arm sometime in July 2017, but she wished it away. Perhaps, she would have taken it seriously if it was painful. Rather, she dismissed it as “something” that would disappear with time. However, in February 2018, she had a rethink when the lump became the centre of attraction in her church.

She said, “I did not know it was cancer from the beginning. I was moving around the church when I noticed that people were looking at my upper right arm. When I got home, I observed that the spot was more swollen than before, but it was painless. All along, I never thought it could be something serious. I decided to go to General Hospital, Ikorodu and I met with a doctor. The doctor asked me to do a scan, but it did not reveal what was actually wrong. I went for an X-ray; it was still the same.

“A sister that works in another hospital directed me to a surgeon. The surgeon asked me to do MRI which revealed a tumour. The surgeon then referred me to the orthopaedic hospital in Igbobi. I asked him what happened, but he didn’t give me a definite answer. He only said ‘that is how cancer usually starts’.

“I went there and a doctor confirmed it was cancerous tumours. He assured me I would be fine and I did not panic. The surgery was done on December 28, 2018 and the tumour was successfully removed. I am still awaiting the report of the histologist. I spent a lot of money but I thank God I got value for it.”

Monday, February 4, 2019 marked another World Cancer Day. The theme of the event, “I am and I will,” was geared towards encouraging cancer survivors to share the stories and inspire others fighting the ailment. It also encourages everyone to be a cancer control advocate, take personal actions and press the government to do more in addressing the scourge.

The incidence of cancer, especially in developing countries like Nigeria, is alarming, while many cases have yet to be discovered due, largely, to people’s poor attitude to regular checkups. The high cost of treating the disease has also made a number of people living with it to seek spiritual help or traditional remedies.

Cancer-induced deaths to increase in Nigeria, others – WHO

According to the World Health Organisation’s statistics released during the 2017 World Cancer Day, over 100,000 Nigerians were diagnosed with cancer annually, with about 80,000 dying from the disease, averaging 240 Nigerians per day or 10 Nigerians every hour. The data also showed that cervical cancer, which is virtually preventable, killed one Nigerian woman every hour while breast cancer killed 40 Nigerians daily. The report stated that 26 Nigerian men died from prostate cancer on a daily basis.

In its latest global cancer data released in September 2018, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an arm of WHO, estimated the global cancer burden to have risen to 18.1 million new cases and 9.6 million deaths in 2018. The report noted that one in five men and one in six women worldwide develop cancer during their lifetime, while one in eight men and one in 11women die from the disease.

Cancers of the lung, breast, and colorectum are rated the top three cancer types in terms of incidence and are ranked within the top five in terms of mortality.

In an event organised in Abuja to commemorate the 2018 World Cancer Day, WHO regional director in Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, disclosed that there would be a 75 per cent increase in cancer-induced death in low and medium income African countries, including Nigeria, by the year 2030.

Unfortunately, experts say the government still treats the menace with levity. There are very few cancer centres in Nigeria and it is claimed that none of them offers comprehensive cancer treatment. Many of the about seven radiotherapy machines in government hospitals across the country are said to be in comatose while the functioning ones are overburdened and prone to regular faults.

Patients should not make medical treatment their last resort – Experts

In an interview with our correspondent, a radiologist at National Orthopaedic Hospital, Igbobi, Dr Jane Igwilo, said the number of adults and children suffering from cancer was almost at par.

Igwilo advised the government and corporate bodies to establish more functional and comprehensive cancer treatment centres in the country and ensure their periodic maintenance. She noted that such would go a long way in reducing the high cost of cancer treatments which has denied a large number of underprivileged people access to health care.

She said, “The scourge in Nigeria has been increasing tremendously. So many factors are responsible for that. One is increase in things we are not doing rightly such as exposure to excess radiation, smoking, and the kinds of foods people eat. More people are becoming aware and they are coming to hospitals for checkups. Through that, more cases are being detected than before. Cancer cases have really increased, especially in children. It used to be few, but now it is almost equal with that of adults.

“Cancer is a very stubborn ailment and its treatment is expensive. The drugs for the treatment are made specifically for it and most of them are imported. We don’t have alternatives to the drugs in Nigeria or Africa at large. Also, we don’t have enough facilities for radiotherapy. The machines are expensive to afford and maintain.

“Government should get interested in the health care of cancer patients. The health care budget is not a priority of the government because they seek health care abroad. So many hospitals do not have radiotherapy centres and where they have, the machines have broken down and there is no money to repair the machines or replace them.

“Apart from the government, the populace and corporate bodies must be sensitised to the need to donate towards the treatment of cancer. If these machines are available in our hospitals and are working, they will save a lot of patients and reduce cost of treatment to a great extent.”

Igwilo advised people on the need to do regular checkups and seek medical treatment if they discovered a lump, adding that it would be better to be told that the lump was normal than to ignore it.

In his view, Prof Suleiman Giwa, an orthopaedic surgeon (with interest in bone cancer) at LUTH, noted that a robust National Health Insurance Scheme, that would make the rich to pay for the health care service of the poor, was the lasting solution to cancer treatment.

He said, “We should take a cue from what is done in India. The rich are the ones that pay for the poor. We need a robust national health insurance that will make the rich pay to subsidise what the poor need to pay. There is nowhere in the world where capitalist health insurance can take care of the poor. I have been to hospitals in India where, to see a surgeon, you have to pay about 5,000 Rhodes. For a poor person to see the same surgeon, he pays 50 Rhodes.

“We can’t continue to blame government. Government will always have limited money to spend with competing interests on roads, agriculture, and electricity and so on. Health insurance is the key. It should be schemed towards ensuring that those who are rich should pay for the poor.”

Giwa observed that apart from the challenge in accessing health care, the problem of acceptance on the part of patients and going into denial after diagnosis were major issues affecting cancer control in Nigeria.

He said, “Most of our people, when they see something wrong, they look for other explanations. This has nothing to do with education. Some educated people will tell you that it is a spiritual attack when they have health issues. That makes a lot of patients to come in late. They would have first gone to spiritual homes.

“Also, once you tell them what the result is (after diagnosis) and what they need to do, they will say it is not their portion to have that. Some patients will just disappear and you won’t see them for months or years. When the disease has festered and become impossible to offer the best treatment you would have loved to offer, they would come back. By then, you are dealing with late cases.

“There is also the problem of accessibility of health care. The cost of care for an average person is stupendous. Six doses of drugs might cost as much as N2m and it becomes impossible for an average income earner to handle.”

The don admitted that through social network schemes, people donated funds to foundations to be used in treating the underprivileged patients. He, however, said the system had not effectively addressed the disease which had become “a national problem.”

The Founder, Niola Cancer Care Foundation, Mrs Eniola Akintunde, lamented that it was disheartening that some non-governmental organisations diverted donations meant for cancer patients’ treatments into personal use. However, she stated that many genuine NGOs had plans to set up cancer treatment centres, but had problem raising funds.

She said, “Corporate organisations need to come on board and partner genuine NGOs on cancer treatment. The government alone cannot do it. There is nowhere in the world that cancer control is left only in the hands of government. Private organisations in Nigeria have not done much in terms of providing aids in cancer control. They need to do more. Our health care is in a terrible state. Religious leaders should also take it up by building hospitals. Nigeria is a praying country. We believe so much in religions.

“A lot of cancer patients run to imams and pastors. It is when their condition becomes worst that they go to hospitals. By then, it would have been late. There is nothing bad in seeking spiritual intervention but, it must not be at the expense of medical treatment. Prayer should go along with the medical treatment.” – Punch.

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