Breast Cancer Survivor Betty Anyanwu-Akeredolu: Reducing Stigma, Lifting Spirits. By Temitayo Olofinlua
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Betty Anyanwu-Akeredolu is the founder and president of the Breast Cancer Association of Nigeria (BRECAN). She herself was diagnosed with breast cancer 18 years ago, in 1997. Through her organization, she has brought hope to many breast cancer patients in Nigeria, and she hopes that breast cancer will be history by 2020.
One Lump Can Change Your Life
Today is a good day for Betty Anyanwu-Akeredolu. Her lilting voice is strong and her smile brightens the entire room, which is filled with charts and materials showing breasts of all shapes and sizes, each at a different stage of cancer. On a much darker day 18 years ago, a discovery by her own hand changed her life forever.
Bad days often start out just like normal days: with no warning bells. One day in March of 1997, Anyanwu-Akeredolu made a discovery that made her voice lose its strength and filled her with fear.
“I was having my bath. Then, I felt something like a lump in my left breast.” She was shocked. She had read about cancer in glossy Western magazines during her days as a university student, but she thought that it was a white person’s disease. But when she found the lump, fear enveloped her.
She had four children who needed her. For a week, she lived in denial. “I kept telling myself that it couldn’t be. I kept telling myself that maybe it will disappear.” So at first she kept the lump to herself; she did not tell her husband, and she did not present at a hospital.
Just as her lump was discovered on an ordinary day, so another life-changing occurrence took place on another ordinary day a week later. Anyanwu-Akeredolu came across a show on cable TV featuring breast cancer survivor Carol Baldwin along with her sons. The text scrolling across the screen read: “THIS PROGRAMME CAN SAVE YOUR LIFE.”
“That programme gave me what I needed most in my life – hope that I could be a survivor too. My spirit was lifted.” In addition to lifting her spirit, the programme also sparked a series of decisions that saved her life.
After watching the show, Anyanwu-Akeredolu started to read widely about breast cancer online. Breast cancer wages a war against the cells in a woman’s breasts. She describes it by using the image of a wall made up of small bricks.
“The human cells are the basic building blocks that make up the tissue. There are tissues in the breast and other parts of the body. Cells regenerate; they grow and die so new cells will be formed. So every now and then, some bricks break down and are rebuilt almost immediately. However, there may be this cell, or brick, which refuses to regenerate and just keeps growing and growing, taking up space that belongs to other cells, to other bricks. These cells can spread quickly.”
Armed with an arsenal of information, she visited UCH Ibadan, where the lump in her breast was confirmed to be breast cancer. But it was a newly educated Anyanwu-Akeredolu, not the previous fearful woman in denial, who faced the news.
“Is it benign? Is it malignant? I had gathered myself and asked questions. I was ready for the journey to being a survivor.” Her cancer was stage 1, and her mastectomy and radiotherapy were successful. She did not undergo chemotherapy.
“After the surgery, the next thing is learning to live without your breast.” She says this is one reason why many women delay mastectomy, but that it should not be so: “I don’t remember that I have lost a breast. I want other women to feel that way. It is an appendage: if it is diseased, you cut it off. You do without it.”
BRECAN: Changing Attitudes About Breast Cancer
It was Anyanwu-Akeredolu’s experience at the hospital that made her decide to start an organization. “The atmosphere at the hospital was very depressing. Most of them did not want to talk.”
She knew that it was important to inform Nigerians about the disease, which is why she started her organization, despite the stigma attached. Many people thought she was crazy for exposing her family, warning that her daughters would not find husbands. But he ignored the skeptics and BRECAN was born.
Anyanwu-Akeredolu’s conviction is evident in her voice when she talks about the reason she started BRECAN: “Breast cancer is not a death statement. I wanted to use my experience to help others.”
And helping others is exactly what she has done since the organization began. BRECAN inspires action against breast cancer through patient support, public education and advocacy. These goals are accomplished through health talks, health walks, discussion sessions and speaking engagements, among other measures.
[VIDEO]: How to do a Self Breast Exam
On February 4, 2015, BRECAN partnered with an Old Boys Students organization to institute an annual lecture series in memory of their classmate, Omolara Jolaoso, who died of breast cancer. The theme of the first series is “Breast Cancer and Lifestyle.”
“Jolaoso is gone but breast cancer is still here. We aim to raise the level of awareness,” says Anyanwu-Akeredolu. A week later, she reached out to young female students, talking with them about the World Cancer Day theme for 2015: Not Beyond Us.
BRECAN’s programmes are for everyone, but they are especially focused on the grassroots level, such as market women and neigbourhood women’s groups who do not readily have access to such information.
Key among BRECAN’s activities are its counselling sessions for individuals and groups. BRECAN also created Hope Lodge, which provides accommodations for breast cancer outpatients and their families traveling to University College Hospital in Ibadan for checkups. And BRECAN organizes a monthly programme called “Breakfast Aerobics” to promote a healthy lifestyle through a combination of exercise and a balanced diet.
“We try to change people’s attitude about the disease. With information, you do not know who you will reach,” says Anyanwu-Akeredolu. A doctor once told her that one of her patients decided to go through with a mastectomy after she heard her on radio.
“I receive at least three calls daily about breast cancer,” she says, adding that it is difficult to put a figure on the number of women she has reached with BRECAN, there have been so many.
Cancer: Nigeria’s Burden
The statistics for breast cancer in Nigeria are daunting. According to the World Health Organization, over 2 million Nigerians (the majority of them women) have died from cancer, and breast cancer is the leading cancer scourge affecting humans. It is like a heavy burden weighing the country down – a burden to which the country is apparently oblivious.
Anyanwu-Akeredolu says that breast cancer wages a war against the very country, because the woman is the backbone of every Nigerian family. “What do you have when the backbone is gone, especially after spending so much money to keep it in place?” she wonders, and in the same breath repeats that it does not have to be this way.
Though there are 11 cancer registries in the country where information on cancer and tumor diseases are systemically collated, Nigeria does not have a national cancer policy. Radiotherapy is not generally available in public health institutions; there are currently nine radiotherapy centres and 30 oncologists. At the public hospitals, treatment is available largely at the tertiary level.
Anyanwu-Akeredolu believes Nigeria needs to do more. “Cancer education should be mass education. This is not what one individual or organization can do, the government has to step in,” she says, noting that the only way is to nip the scourge in the bud, because with more information, most patients will present earlier.
Information alone may not be enough, however. Anyanwu-Akeredolu says that empowerment is key, and that a woman must be able to do the right thing with the information she has.
“Treat it as a medical issue. Women should take charge of their breast health. You need to accept that this disease can affect you; that you are not covered with anything. Every woman is at risk. The top on the list of risk factors for breast cancer is being a woman – nobody is spared. So do the simple thing: check your breasts regularly. If you notice any unusual thing, go to the hospital. Women are surviving it for sure, in great numbers, and we are working towards ending it. It is a disease that I believe could be ended.”
And beyond information and empowerment, Nigerians should have access to free medical care. The treatment course for cancer is too expensive for the average Nigerian, which Anyanwu-Akeredolu lists as another reason why many just accept their diagnosis as a death sentence.
“No matter how poor the woman is, if she knows that the treatment is free, she will likely go for treatment at the hospital,” Anyanwu-Akeredolu says. Yet this is not the case in most Nigerian hospitals, where mammograms and clinical breast exams are not even available at the Public Health Centres. It is also crucial to equip hospitals with the needed facilities and properly skilled personnel.
BRECAN is part of the National Breast Cancer Coalition, a union of breast cancer organisations seeking to bring an end to the disease by 2020. Although 2020 is just five short years away and Nigeria is very far from this goal, Anyanwu-Akeredolu is optimistic: “If we try, we can. If we sit down to think about these issues, if we take actionable steps, if we dream and set goals to achieve those dreams, we can.”
Betty Anyanwu-Akeredolu has conquered her cancer for 18 years, and she says that her story of survival is a testimony that if Nigeria wants to conquer breast cancer, she can. “As survivors of breast cancer, we look at ourselves – if we can live this long, it is possible that we can find an answer,” she says, smiling.
Betty’s Survival Tips:
- Know your breasts.
- Report any strange discoveries to the hospital.
- Read widely about treatment options.
- Choose your preferred option quickly.
- Live life to the fullest.
BRECAN Contact Information
Address: BRECAN Centre, 18 Akinyemi Way (Off E-GT Bank)
Ring Road, Ibadan, Nigeria
Phone Number: 08033331211
Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH)
University College Hospital (UCH), Ibadan
Ahmadu Bello University Teaching Hospital (ABUTH), Zaria
Eko Hospital, Lagos
National Hospital Abuja
University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital, Enugu
Usman Dan Fodio University Teaching Hospital, Sokoto
University of Benin Teaching Hospital, Benin
Federal Medical Centre, Gombe
Lakeshore Cancer Center, Lagos provides premium oncology services
Dr. T. Olasinde, Head of Radiotherapy and Oncology Department
Lola Salako, Radiation Oncologist, LUTH
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