LIVING WITH CANCER IN NIGERIA
Cancer is defined as an abnormal growth of cells, which divide and proliferate in an uncontrolled manner, and in some cases, metastasize (spread) and invade other nearby tissues. A common misconception is that cancer is a disease, cancer is not one disease, it is a collection of several distinctive diseases.
It is estimated that in Nigeria, over 130,000 cases of cancer occur every year. With a population of over 1.3 billion people in Africa, Nigeria constitutes 20 percent of the population with over 180 million people. In 2008, It was estimated by Cancer Epidemiology, that Nigeria contributes 15 percent to the number of cancer cases reported in Africa.
A statistic published by Cancer Country Profile in 2020, placed breast cancer at 22.7 percent, cervix uteri at 12.9, prostrate at 11.3 and liver cancer at 4.4 percent.
There is a stigma against survivors and children of cancer victims in Nigeria who are seen as unworthy match for marriage. And more often than not, this creates problems in finding a partner. To protect her children from this stigma against cancer, a mother who survives breast cancer will almost never be seen talking about it in public. She would hide information about the disease and pray that her children are not later on affected by it.
Not too long ago, a Nollywood actress Ini Dima-Okojie released a video on her page, detailing her struggle and treatment from fibroids. The comment section was filled with some people asking her why she would share such a thing. Some even chided her by insinuating that she wasn’t the only woman who had been through the experience. How do we have conversations about these diseases when people see them as inappropriate?
There are over one hundred and thirty thousand new cases of cancer each year in Nigeria. The commonest cancers among women are: breast and cervical cancer; and in men, prostate cancer. In Nigeria, it has been reported that 34 percent of men are diagnosed with invasive cancer and for women, 66 percent. What other topics do we need to discuss?
Some Africans believe that cancer is a consequence, or some sort of punishment from the African gods to the white man for his sins, and to Africans for forsaking their gods and taking up the white man’s God and embracing their version of civilization.
It is widely argued for, that civilisation is the cause of cancer. That industrialisation, destruction of the ozone layer and so many other related factors brought cancer into the world. At the cradle of humankind—a fossil dominated area of South Africa—researchers discovered a foot bond belonging to a human relative who died in Swartkrans cave between 1.6 and 1.8 million years ago. The discovery challenged the postulation that civilisation birthed cancer.
In his book, The Emperor of all maladies, oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee writes, ‘’civilization did not cause cancer, but by extending human life spans, civilization unveiled it.’’
This discovery which was published in the South African journal of science, suggests that the triggers for the disease are embedded deep within the human evolutionary past. Alienating civilisation will not eviscerate the affliction that is cancer, because it is something that is a part of us as humans. Even exposure to the sun, which is important for the survival of living things, causes cancer.
The world’s oldest documented case of cancer hails from ancient Egypt in 1500 BC, it documented eight cases of tumours on the breast which were treated by cauterization using a hot instrument called, “the fire drill.”
One of the earliest references to this affliction was in the writings of the great Egyptian physician Imhotep, who lived around 2600. He had described, “bulging mass in the breast” that was resistant to any known therapies.
It should be noted that there are cancers which do not require invasive methods to be removed. They can be simply treated at the doctor’s office. Example of such cancers include: basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Symptoms of these type of cancer may include:
- Sores that don’t heal and reappear.
- Raised, scaly red patches.
- Small, shiny, smooth lumps that are pen, red or white.
- Pale, flat areas, sores or growth that bleed or itch.
- Scaly, red patches with uneven borders.
- Wart-like growths.
- Sores that bleed easily.
- Growths that are itch, irritated or painful.
There are some major causes of cancer as a result of lifestyle choices, habits, certain harmful exposure etc. These causes include:
- Smoking: There are certain harmful substances contained in cigarettes (carcinogens) which upon inhalation, enter into the blood stream and cause harm.
- Obesity and weight: According to experts, the excess visceral fat that surround your vital organs could cause inflammation. “These excessive visceral fat affects certain processes in the body including how the body manages hormones, like insulin and oestrogen.” says Karen Basen- Engquist, Ph,D.,professor in Behavioural Science at MD Anderson. “All of this can lead to an increased cancer risk by affecting how and when cells divide and die,” she says.
- Sun and Ultraviolet Light: Too much exposure to radiation from the sun or UV can lead to the damage of certain genetic materials in the skin cells. If enough genetic material is damaged, it can cause cells to start growing and spreading out of control which can lead to skin cancer.
- Harmful chemicals: These substances are called carcinogens. Some people work or live around industries where they are exposed to these chemical. Example of this chemical include; aflatoxins, arsenic, asbestos, benzene, ethylene oxide, thorium, wood dust etc.
Other causes include: air and gas pollution, hormones, infections such as HPV, alcohol etc.
In the fight against cancer, there are several treatment options and they include:
- Radiation therapy,
- Hormone therapy,
- Bone marrow transplant,
- Clinical trials, among others.
- Clinical trials, among others
There are countless religious leaders who promise instantaneous healing from cancer. They sell special oil, water and handkerchief, and instruct their congregation on how to use it to obliterate cancer.
Some Nigerians still seek help from herbalists who concoct potions from magical plants to shrink cancer. Some people who did not previously have the disease, get it after drinking and eating all the potions concocted.
The cost of treating cancer is ridiculous, ranging from fifteen million Naira and above. How do you tell someone who finds it difficult to get a three-square meal, to pay fifteen million Naira for treatment of a sickness they previously thought only affected the rich?
The rich run abroad to get the best possible treatment when afflicted with cancer. Some even travel to nearby countries like Ghana to have a smooth treatment. And of course, the less privileged people will seek help from religious leaders and herbalist at less ridiculous prices.
In an interview with Nigeria Health Watch, a cancer survivor Theodora Nwosu-Zitta said that in the year 2018, there were just four working radiation machines in the entire country—Zaria, Abuja, Ibadan and Port Harcourt—with one breaking down at a time, forcing the patients to constantly move to a city where the radiation machine is currently working. The healthcare sector in Nigeria is detrimental and decreases the chances of these patients.
In a story shared to Nigeria Health Watch by another cancer survivor, Swatkasa Gimba, she talked about her experience with cancer, coming from a less than average Nigerian family, with a retired father and a mother who was a teacher.
“When I got the report, I was devastated,” she said. “Thoughts flooded my mind as tears poured down my face. How could I have cancer? Cancer is for the rich. My mother is a teacher and my father, retired. How will they pay for my treatment? What is the chance that I can survive this? Even if I do survive, how will I live with just one breast?”
She talked about how awful it was, how she lost her hair and nails and how the soles of her feet and her tongue became black. She could barely eat, and when she forced herself to, she threw it all up and was always weak.
While explaining the difficulty in getting treatment, she said, “I was supposed to use the machine for 25 days, but there was such a long waiting line that I kept going back and forth for one month before I was enrolled into the programme,” she said, adding, “Because of the pressure put on it and its age, the machine kept breaking down but finally, I finished my treatment.”
She went ahead to call on the government and other private organizations to do more, to ensure that cancer is not a death sentence to the average Nigerian.
The fight against cancer should be a fight for all, as no one is above getting the disease. Our government needs to do better, and we as individuals need to better conversations about cancer. There is a need for more conversations about how to treat and live with cancer.
Always remember to abide by these cancer prevention tips:
- Avoid smoking
- Get regular medical exams and screenings
- Eat a healthy diet
- Always protect yourself from the sun
- Get vaccine for certain viral infections
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Exercise regularly.
Theresa Okereke (Tessie) is a final year student of Faculty of Law of Ebonyi State University and an Intern at Crater Library & Publisher. Tessie is Nigerian-British, Igbo-Nigerian to be precise, from Ebonyi State and resides in Abakaliki.