From Tragedy to Triumph

18 Feb 2013

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On February 4, the World Cancer Day, Adeola Akinremi followed cancer survivors into their homes and reports their amazing stories of survival

“I was frozen, stunned with adrenaline and nausea. I felt drained and I felt drained, overcome with apprehension -I thought I would die.  I actually saw my mortality in my face.”  That way, Kehinde Gbele, 51, opened her mouth to recount the story of her survival. She is not the only one. There are three others. They were in denial.  They said, “It was unbelievable, incredible and impossible, but it happened.”

In a way, diagnosing cancer involves a dizzying array of expensive, often inconclusive and sometimes painful tests – biopsies into deeply rooted tumours or repeated brain scans that often aren’t sensitive enough to pick subtle changes that hint at abnormalities.

Gbele, a mother-of-three and breast cancer survivor experienced just that.  She says, “When I noticed the lump, I went to my doctor who indeed confirmed that there was a lump. So, he immediately said, a lump has no place in the breast and he advised that I should go for further examination and that was how I left Lagos for teaching hospital in Ilorin, Kwara State.  At that point they decided to do what is called Fine Needle Aspiration Biopsy (FNAB- insertion of a thin, hollow needle to take a sample of cells from an organ or lump) for me, but a sense of what I got was that if I have a lump in the breast at my age that it would be Fibroadenoma(noncancerous tumour), so they were not too enthusiastic about it, yet they did not turned me away. I started minding my own business, but after a few days they came back that it was inconclusive, that when they have the lumpectomy--a common surgical procedure designed to remove a discrete lump, usually a benign--they would be able to give me a better result.”

That sense of imbalance makes progress fragile. So, after the medical examination at University of Ilorin Teaching Hospital, Gbele went on holiday in the United Kingdom where she had another test. “I just thought since I was in the UK I may as well check it out. So I decided to check it out and they repeated the same Fine Needle Aspiration Biopsy and they told me that I was okay, but that they have to remove the lump.  So, I opted to remove the lump and after that I returned to Nigeria. It was when they took the lump to the lab that they found out that it was malignant.  Malignant means, it was cancerous,” she said.

She had returned to normal life in Nigeria. But on a day Gbele was celebrating a car gift given to her by her employer the bad news came.  “But after we have returned to Nigeria, the hospital began a search for me, because they found out that they had given me an erroneous report,” she says.  “So, immediately my husband got back to work they told him that they need to have me back to the UK. So, one day I was just given a status car in my work place in the bank as an official car and we were having a merry making with my colleagues when a call came through. It was my husband. His voice was not strong at all on the phone and I asked what is the matter now, then at that point he mustered courage and he said, you know that operation you did in the UK and I said yes, what about it? He responded by saying they have requested that you come back for additional surgery. It just occurred to me at that hour that this cannot be good news. I was quiet for sometime after he had finished relaying the message to me on the phone. Then, I heard, Kenny, Kenny, Kenny are you still there and I responded Yes.  After saying yes, I asked him, am I going to die?”

In the UK hospital her fear was confirmed, but by then, she had made up her mind to face the challenge. “When I got to the UK, I met with the nurse who told me straight to my face that I had cancer of the breast.  But by the time the news was broken to me, my mind had become strong. I couldn’t cry anymore. I just said Ok what next?”

Aged 36 in 1998, Gbele’s journey into the cancer world began, but she survived the titanic battle. She says, “God is it,” but added, “a sense of humour was what really helped me. People would visit me and they would be weeping and I would tell them, save your tears till when I die and they would increase the weeping, saying God forbid, and I would say when I’m 98 -year-old and they would all start laughing. But to be clear, early detection and quick medical advice made me triumph in the battle against cancer.”

Yes, no woman looks forward to having her breasts removed, especially when they are blessed with a nice pair, but Gbele says,“having surgery was my only option. I met with a team of medical personnel that was going to take care of me. It was more or less like a business meeting. They were up to five people. When I entered the hall and the consultant introduced the team to me, I was like, yes, this is no malaria fever. I am in trouble.

They then came up with all the stories and then they said because of my age, they would do what is known as mastectomy for me. They just assumed I knew the meaning of mastectomy, until I asked them. When I asked, they were a bit surprised, so the consultant explained to me that mastectomy is the removal of the breast. They have partial, and they have radical, but because of my age, I would require radical mastectomy. I was startled and I was rattled. I asked, do women live with one breast? And they said, yes, yes, quite a number of women live with one breast. I then looked to my right and my husband said yes.   You see, before now I was worried about the cancer, but when my husband said yes, that changed my worry to something else. I said, I live with one breast, so that you can marry another woman.”

Her painful, exhaustive and expensive treatment lasted for one year, “It started with test to the removal operation and chemotherapy,” she said. “But I lost my self esteem, like when I first had the removal, I used to think that people would know that I have one breast, but how that is possible or not possible  wasn’t the issue, my thought was just like, people would know and I carried that thought with me for a long time.  But, one day I stopped all that and I said living with one breast is better than a dead body with two breasts.”

Another survivor, Oluwakemi Oyegbile, a middle-aged high school geography teacher who lives in Ogun State says, “It was in the year 2004. Once it was confirmed that I had cancer my heart cuts. It was as if the end has come. I cried, I cried and I cried. I went into my toilet and I cried as if the end has come.  I just believed that I was going to die, because my understanding was that once you have it, you are on your way out of this earth. But after I had cried my heart out, somehow I just believed that there must be hope somewhere.”

Just like Gbele, it was a lump on Oyegbile’s left side of the breast that prompted her. “When I had my last baby and she was going through breastfeeding, she would rest her hand on a part of the breast and I would feel some pain. So, I decided to check it and it turned out to be a lump. I then went to the hospital to report it,” she says.

The first test was done, but like others she had inconclusive result.  “After removing the lump, my doctor asked me to take it to a histology laboratory in Surulere, Lagos. On the day of the result, they told me it was inconclusive and that they would have to call in another doctor for a second test. The next appointment I had I didn’t go, but someone called me to say the result of your test is ready. Immediately he dropped the line, I was shattered.  I felt very strange. I knew if the result was okay, I wouldn’t have been called on the phone. I went for the result and when I got home I opened it and read it and it wasn’t good.  All the while, I didn’t tell my husband, but I know something had gone wrong in my mind. The result then read something like carcinogen insitu and that gave me hope because I remember that during my university days I have come across insitu in science which means it is still within the origin.  It hasn’t spread and that gave me hope that it can be managed,” she recounts.

After that, she headed straight to a Lagos State General Hospital where she had her breast removed.  She said though the surgery was not as difficult, but the treatment process was the most challenging.

She says, “the treatment is expensive. Thank God for technology and development now that helps people to know the type because breast cancer also has types. In my own time, there was no test for types, but now we have test for  such that could assist in the kind of drug to be administered, because  there are different types of drugs and you have to know which one is applicable, so that you won’t use a wrong drug.  For instance when people like me were diagnosed, there was no test to tell us what drug was applicable.  The doctor will just say use this for five years. I did my chemotherapy and it took a lot of time from me. By the time I did my chemotherapy at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) they had just one machine and the only machine they had then was not functioning and I had to be referred to the University College Hospital (UCH), Ibadan, Oyo State.  When I got to UCH, they asked me to come back after five months, because there were many people on the queue. The machine at UCH wasn’t a big one too and people were coming from all over the country, Kano, Onitsha, Lagos, Enugu, Zaria, Ilorin and may other places. It was as if that was the only place. When I finally got appointment for treatment, it was every other day and I was going there in public transport. There were pains all over me because chemotherapy affects all part of the body.  It really sapped my energy.”

Inside her parlour at Iponri Estate in Lagos, Mrs. Akinjisola, another survivor says, “It started from the armpit and before we knew the tests confirmed I had cancer in my two breasts. I literarily passed out.  But, we turned to God just days before the surgery and cancer disappeared from one breast. I had just one breast removed and I survived.”

Having overcome, in separate words, they advice, “If you are positive you can overcome. You must also come out of denial. Don’t live with the taboo, just break it. Don’t believe what people are saying like if you cut your breast you will die. So, everyone must be observant, any change in the body must be reported to the doctor. People should also know that there is nothing wrong in the powers of prayer, but if you are not taken the drug and you are praying, there is a problem.  If you must pray, please take necessary actions as regards treatment too. If cancer is detected early, something can be done.”

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