Tales from breast cancer survivors
Life went well for Madam Mary Enigbokan until she was diagnosed with breast cancer, then she realized there was more to healthy living.
Enigbokan, a middle-aged woman had lost her husband 20 years ago and automatically became the breadwinner of the family, but her new status made her wade through a more harrowing experience. In the battle for survival, she sold all her belongings and eventually became a pauper.
“I was in school of Theology in 2012 when I noticed some changes in my breast. It was a tumour on my right breast. I was curious and went to a private hospital, the doctor said it was a tumour and it would be removed. After the operation, the doctor didn’t give any other instruction. I believed that was all and life continued as usual,” Enigbokan said.
“After a year, the lump started growing on the operated breast. I informed my son that I am not feeling healthy again. We went to Ikorodu General Hospital, where my medical doctor explained to me that the breast would be cut.
“At this point, I didn’t know what to do because I didn’t understand. The doctor persuaded me to do another operation for about N100, 000. Some of my friend contributed money and advised me to consult an herbalist. On a second thought, I asked the herbalist to refund the money and went straight to the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital (LASUTH).
“I had no helper then and I sold all I had to survive. I was given appointment date and all this process cost so much. Many times I go different churches to gather money, other times, I will trek from Ketu to Eko Hospital, so as to save some money. Psychologically, it wasn’t easy for me bearing it all alone; I remember nights of tears and prayers, just to be sure that it would work out fine,” she narrated.
Enigbokan, who eventually become one of the celebrated survivors of breast cancer could not but always recount her experience on the operation.
“The operation day was a big one for me. One of the nurses even tried to make me perplexed, but I summoned courage and strength in God that I will come out alive and strong. The operation was finally successful.
“Little did I realise that was just the beginning. After the operation, I started taking my oncology drugs. The after-operation treatment is the hardest in terms of drugs, financial cost, psychological trauma and many other things that cannot be explained.
“I started with drugs ranging from N300, 000, then N250, 000. And the last one I took was for N90, 000. The drugs however depend on how the situation is. Mine was very expensive for N300, 000, while the operation costs N100, 000.
“I got my chemotherapy on eleven counts. This period, one would be injected and its effect is what is better imagined than experienced. At this time, I could not eat properly; I was vomiting and the same time had diarrhea.
“I had no support aside the little money that my children realise when they go for events decoration. I also seek help from churches and friends, and was able to gather some money. In fact, I have another drug that I have to take. It is for N11, 000; I am still seeking financial support, because I have no money since June this year.
“I want government to support people like us because, I am a widow, and I have no one to support. Some people even avoid me, thinking that they would be infected with breast cancer if I get closer to them. I have learned to live alone and support my children as much as I can.
“I jokingly tell people that I have one breast and I call myself “one nation”. I console myself with some songs that remind me of heaven and happy home of rest after life,” she added.
Meanwhile, the story was different for another breast cancer survivour, Mrs. Shola Martins, who is well educated and knowledgeable about diet and nutrition.
But she said: “Breast cancer is not about eating the best diet or having knowledge about cancer, one might still have it even after taking all necessary precautions.”
Her quiet composure and fluent English expression shows that she is well learned and wealthy. With her background, one would be surprised to know that she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Recounting her experience, she said that she is a person that is finicky with whatever diet she takes.
“I seize every screening opportunity that I see. I read a lot and ask questions from experts on issues relating to women because I am a leader in my church. I educate women on how to diet especially when they attain age 35/40.
“My husband travelled out of the country in 2008 and I had to take care of the family. Sometimes in 2012, I felt this hardness on my right breast. It was not the lump or seed –like growth that I usually read about as part of the symptoms of breast cancer.
“I was always pressing it and wondering what it could be. I waved it off as a hormonal imbalance but after some time, I noticed that it was still there. So I decided to see a nurse who discovered that there are also two lumps, one on the nipple, and the other like a hard surface.
“I called my sister who was the chief matron in that hospital, and she booked me to see one of their surgeons. I ran two tests and collected the result. Because I had an idea, I understood some of the terminologies, which is when the breast is benign or malignant. I checked the result and saw that ‘malignant’ was written on it.
“I remembered the puzzled look on the surgeon’s face when he saw the hardness on the nipple. I didn’t bother to ask the laboratory technician any question after the test. I saw “malignant” and knew it was cancer.
“There and then, I broke down on my way home and called one of my friends who took me home. At this point, I came to realise, as in the Bible that what I fear most has happened to me.”
Martins said she took the result back to the surgeon. The surgeon said, ‘Madam, look at my face.’ “I looked at him expectedly and I heard him say, ‘I will have to cut off the breast and I give you between today and Thursday to decide, so the operation could be carried out.’
“My sister, who is even a medical practitioner, was literarily shivering. Then, I broke down in tears. The surgeon prompted me to seek my husband’s consent and report quickly to the hospital. It was a Monday and he was to go on leave that Friday.
“That was the most traumatic period for me in my life. I had to decide between three days for my breast to be cut and save my life. My sister advised that I do it within the time frame because she believes the surgeon is good enough. I called my husband and explained things to him. He had no better choice than to give his consent. I told my family members also and they gave their full support. They promised to give me the best healthcare that I needed to survive.
“I went back to the hospital on Wednesday and asked the surgeon if I would survive the operation and he said I would. Since I got that affirmation, I went for the operation with a strong spirit. The required tests were done before the operation and I was scheduled for the theatre on Thursday morning,” she explained.
Martins continued: “I was the first patient to be rolled into the theatre. Sincerely, I didn’t know how long the operation lasted but it was successful. I checked myself in the mirror and was like, so this breast is gone. The affected side of the breast was heavily plastered.
The lump that was removed was taken to the laboratory to determine the type of cancer it is and its required treatment. I was in the hospital for two weeks, after which I was referred to LASUTH for chemotherapy.
“Chemotherapy in a lay man’s language is simply injecting poison into the body so as to kill cancerous cells, in the process, other cells also die. That is why good diet is very important to help build and boost the body immunity. It is during this chemotherapy that many cancer patients die, hair falls off, and insomnia becomes normal, general weakness of the body and lack of appetite.
“My chemotherapy was five courses, that is, two weeks interval. The doctors will check your blood level to determine if you can do it to avert death. Survival this period also depends largely on the body immune system, the patient’s psychological balance, finance, and family support, among others.
“Each of my chemo costs about N150, 000 and I also had drugs to buy. My sister told me about COPE in the hospital and I would say my family have been supporting in every way they can,” she said.
Martins said after the experience, she latter realized that breast cancer is not only for adults, but also affect teenagers.
“My take is that every woman is prone to it. More awareness should be created and women should not shy away from any screening centres they see. Do your regular breast examination, at least two weeks after menstruation, for women that are still menstruating,” she said.
Martins further advised that husbands should always check their wives’ breast whenever they meet.
“If my husband was around then, I’m sure that it wouldn’t have gotten to that stage. Men should caress their wives very well in that area and check for any difference in shape, size, and tenderness,” she said.
She added that early detection could save the life of a cancer patient, urging women to, “see a doctor once any abnormal growth is noticed, it doesn’t have to be a lump.”
A member of ODS Cancer Support Group, Ms. Della Ogunleye, said her case was discovered in London, where she undergo the operation and chemotherapy.
“My own experience was in 2010. I felt some changes in my breast and waved it off as nothing I should worry about. I even concluded that maybe my breast was still growing. I told one of my friends, who is a doctor about the changes.
“She advised me to see a doctor quickly. My doctor didn’t waste time to refer me to the hospital. I conducted some test and a lump was discovered in my breast. I was asked to do an ultrasound test and I noticed that the face of the laboratory technician dropped after the test.
“Honestly, I was not hoping to hear breast cancer and I felt there must be a mistake somewhere. I lived in London where I attend support groups every Wednesday.
“I told one of my colleagues at the fellowship about the test and she decided to go with me to the laboratory to get the result. I was told that I had cancer. I showed no sign of shock or any surprise, I was only wondering why my friend gave a deep sigh when I was told the result.
Ogunleye added that it was after she got the result that her mindset on cancer changed.
“I had always thought that cancer is for white people, so I switch off whenever I hear cancer.
“I got the result on Wednesday. I was so relaxed because I had no idea yet what I was dealing with. I love travelling and I bought a ticket to travel to Nigeria for summer already. I didn’t want anything to stop me.
“The doctor asked if I would like to shrink the breast and I supported it because it was a quick way of getting things done.
“I was meant to have a mastectomy but because I was travelling, I had an implant just to see me through my trip to Nigeria. When I came back, I did the operation and started chemotherapy.
Ogunleye recounted that chemotherapy was an ordeal that she would never wish to experience again.
“During my chemotherapy, I watched my immune system go down and sometimes prayed that the hospital catch fire so I won’t go through the next chemo. Friends in the fellowship stood by me and even reminds of my chemotherapy dates.
“That was the only thing that I did not like. I was always happy when my white blood cell count is low because there would be no chemotherapy for me that day. I have no hair in my body again, even to my armpit and pubic area because of chemo.I asked relevant questions form the support group and I was able to go through it successful.
On the psychological trauma she faced, Ogunleye recounted that it was not an easy one.
“I wasn’t prepared for the psychological effect of the chemotherapy treatment. Those were the depression and even the suicidal thoughts I had at some point. I asked God many questions that I am yet to get answer.
“My friend shook me up by reminding me of the social foster people that might take my children away. That made me stronger because I did not want anyone to take custody of my kids.
“It is now more than six years after and I am stronger, no trace of cancer or anything. Since 2010 till now, really, it has been God.
She added that Nigerians in United Kingdom (UK) still have this notion of “it is not for blacks”, or “it is not my portion,” which is absolutely wrong.
The Chief Executive Officer of Care, Organisation, Public Enlightenment (C.O.P.E) breast cancer awareness centre, Ebunola Anozie, has decried the poor state of cancer treatment in Nigeria, adding that about one-third of deaths from cancer are due to poor behavioural and dietary risk.
“Nothing works in the hospitals anymore. Brilliant doctors are leaving the country to practice. Government has to do the needful by providing the necessary supports,” she said.
She added that the advocacy should be for the month of October alone. It has to be done throughout the year, adding that cancer patients should not lose hope, “they can COPE with hope”.
Anozie observed that the healthcare system in the country leaves more to be desired as majority of cancer patients lose their lives to poor management, lack of state of the art equipment, non-affordability and high cost of anti-cancer drug, persistent breakdown of our outdated radiotherapy machines and incompetent medical hands are some of the reasons why cancer patients go to Ghana or India for treatment.
Consultant and a general medical practitioner, Dr. Ikunna Onwuanibe said cost is a huge barrier in all aspect of health care in Nigeria.
She added that, “Although there are some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that serves as support groups, government also has to play their part by providing healthcare at affordable cost.”
Onwuanibe said that early detection remains germane to surviving cancer.
Co-Founder of the Bricoin Foundation, Abigail Simon-Hart, said her experience and work dealing with breast cancer has taught her that proper patient care involves all aspects of the personal, physical, emotional, spiritual and psychosocial.
As a survivor, she said the government must increase budget on health and totally overhaul the healthcare system, which is pleading for survival.
On private organisations supporting the nation’s health care system, Simon-Hart said, “they should donate their time and resources to helping NGOs to make a difference.
“If every Nigerians donate their own quota, we can definitely become the change we want to see following this year theme for World cancer day, “We can, I can”,” she added.
On the psychological aspect of cancer treatment, Consultant Psychologist of Friedlich Consulting, Olive Ogedegbe said a cancer patients tend to be depressed.
“For proper wellness, one should not just focus on the physical body; the mind also needs to be healed. Unconsciously, an unfortunate situation makes people depressed and if they don’t have people to talk to, it can lead to suicide, alienation from their family members and colleagues, emotional imbalance and probably develop psychosis.
“In order to overcome this depression, you have to live in the present, and take life as it comes. Positivity can bring good result instead of wallowing in sadness,” she added.
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