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By Christine Onwuachumba
“Cancer care has not been high on the list of government priorities in Nigeria and very little is being done to create awareness and prevention of the debilitating disease. Much less has been done on establishing excellent treatment centres that can cater for the growing number of cancer victims in the country.”
This pronouncement was made by Eniola Salu Akintunde, chairperson, Niola Cancer Care Foundation, at the launch of her NGO and awareness campaign on colorectal cancer in Nigeria at the Sheraton Hotel, Ikeja, Lagos, recently.
Daily Sun spoke with her at the event.
Why did you take up this cause?
I had an experience that redefined my life. If I hadn’t gone through it, maybe there won’t be Niola Cancer Care today. The lessons I learned from the experience were motivating, painful, heart-breaking. To say the least, I experienced everything! The only thing I could do was to turn my mess into a message. That is why we have Niola Cancer Care Foundation today.
What are the questions we need to ask our doctors about colon/colorectal cancer?
From my experience, I actually lost my husband, Bolarinwa Akintunde, to colorectal cancer. Most patients are afraid to ask their doctors and caregivers questions. Every patient has the right to know the stage of her disease, what is actually wrong with him/ her, the solution being proffered to you and how it is going to help you.
You find that in this part of the world, most patients don’t even ask and some of our doctors, not all though, are not even ready to talk. Perhaps I can excuse the doctors and say they are overwhelmed as there are not enough doctors. One oncology doctor can be treating breast, lung, leukemia, kidney, liver cancer. It is not supposed to be so.
In advanced countries, they have specialist doctors for different types of cancers. In Nigeria, one doctor performs in all capacities. Government needs to step up, employ more hands and pay doctors better.
Where does your foundation come in?
At the Niola Cancer Care Foundation, we fill the gap on colorectal cancer. I will always make references to my personal experience. When my late husband had the ailment, there was no NGO I could talk to and it is not all questions that you can ask the doctor. There was no support group to tell you how best to handle the situation, instead I relied on international support.
They advised me on what to do and how to manage my husband after he had taken chemotherapy. What he needed and didn’t need to eat. Then I lost him. I knew there was a vacuum that needed to be filled concerning coreclectal cancer patients and their care-givers.
What are the signs of colorectal cancer?
Sometimes, there may be no signs of the disease, so the only way it can be picked up is through screening. That is why we are advocate for early detection. Then, on the part of the medical personnel, accurate diagnosis. When it is misdiagnosed, patients are treated for ulcer or sometimes appendicitis, whereas it is colon cancer.
Early detection and accurate diagnosis are areas we fail in Nigeria. Nigerians should stop being afraid of screening. At a certain age, you need to start getting yourself screened. Be conscious of what you eat. Adoption of foreign feeding culture is destroying Nigerians. Let us go back to what we used to eat before. Let’s go back to organic food.
What is your goal with this foundation?
My goal is to tell Nigerians that colorectal cancer does exist in our country and people are dying of it. We should create more awareness on it.
The smallest screening for colorectal cancer is a fecal blood test (FOBT). If Nigerians can start doing that, it is a stepping stone to preventing it. Imagine a 26-year-old Nigerian having colorectal cancer. That is scary.
There is nowhere in the world where the management of cancer is left in the hands of the government alone.
It is enormous. When cancer occurs, everybody is affected. We are losing people to cancer. Let us do it the way it is being done in developed countries. There are not enough screening centres in Nigeria. We are over 170 million, where are the screening centres where people can get the proper education and proper screening on cancer? The goal of Niola Cancer Foundation is to have screening centres everywhere. Our long-term plan is to have state-of-the-art screening centres in the six geopolitical zones, with Lagos State as a starting point.
How did cancer change your life?
Cancer is emotionally, financially and psychologically burdensome. It drains both the victim and caregiver. In my own case, it was my husband of 16 years. So, it wasn’t easy. It claimed his life and nearly claimed mine as well but God restored me miraculously. I don’t know how I bounced back. Although I still have my scars. I came out from the trauma more refined and defined on my purpose in life.
It took everything that we had worked for and I had to start all over again.
What are the services Niola has in place to support cancer patients?
Niola Cancer Foundation is all about screening. We are interested in creating awareness and setting up screening centres. We want to help reduce the death rate drastically. Our interest is to build screening centres and equip them with equipment and create awareness. People should seek medical attention when they notice anything strange. Nigerians are fond of saying “it is not my portion” The ailment has no boundaries.
It is common knowledge that Nigeria’s health care system is in a state of decay but we won’t stop talking about it. What do you want from government individuals and the private sector?
For the government, laws and policies should be in place, medical, health scheme should be a top priority in the project. Policies that will reduce the death rate of cancer. We, NGOs, have always been in full support of government but it should in turn create an enabling environment for us to thrive and do our work. We are committed to supporting them to help reduce the death rate from cancer.
However, if we are not getting the needed support from them, that will restrain us from doing what we want to do. All hands must be on deck to fight this ailment. We cannot leave everything for the government. Then, the ordinary Nigerian on the street should show love to people going through it. Show compassion. Cancer patients need love.
At Niola Cancer Foundation, we preach early detection, we also preach accurate diagnosis because this would reduce the death rate and it would help us avoid raising millions of naira to treat cancer patients. We have done our research. We have walked up to the Lagos State government and they have 57 local primary health care flagship centres where the fecal occult blood test is done as well as colon cancer screening. Anybody can walk into these primary health care centres in all the 57 local government areas in Lagos to test their stool. We are also partners with Optimal Cancer Care Foundation for screening at a highly subsidised rate.
Are colon and colorectal cancer the same thing?
It is called colorectal because it starts from the colon, which is the large intestine. If it starts from there, that is colon cancer. But, most times, it leads to the rectum. So the colon and rectum are treated together, that is why they call it colorectal cancer.
Could you give us some insights on preventive measures against this disease?
We should mind what we eat. We are adopting the Western lifestyle and it is killing us. There is a high rate of colorectal cancer now. It was not as high as this about 15 years ago.
In Nigeria, colorectal cancer is the fifth cancer killing Nigerians, as at today, from the report we get from various hospitals around us. It is so prevalent now. At Niola Cancer Care Foundation, we want to start doing research and collating data. We want our NGO to be a resource centre for colorectal cancer in Nigeria.
What do you think about alternative medicine?
I cannot talk about that because I am not a medical person. I cannot advise a cancer patient to go purely on alternative medicine but that does not mean that it does not work. The government should explore that option extensively and see how they can work with these alternative medicine practitioners and set up a regulatory body to monitor them.
It is possible we can have something that would cure cancer in Nigeria; so I am not against it. However, I do not joke with bitter leaf and spinach (ugwu leaves.) They are good for prevention (of cancer).