Diary of a Breast Cancer Survivor


Amid the growing number of people dying from cancer in the country, there seems to be a glimmer of hope for strong and resilient Nigerians like Mrs. Nneka Effiong who has beaten the deadly disease. Rebecca Ejiforma writes

When it strikes, it leaves its victims with two choices, either to identify the disease on time and deal with it appropriately amidst discomforts, or identify it late and suffer the consequences of late detection, which most likely leave tales of sorrow, pain, tears and perhaps death. Either way, just like day turns into night, the victims have to live with their new status. This is the picture of cancer when it visits. It shows no mercy, only sad footprints.

But for Mrs. Nneka Effiong, her resilience to live, early detection of breast cancer and prompt treatment processes played a key role in her survival.

It was June 2013. Before the month, things had gone jolly for the civil servant, until the tumor appeared. As unfortunate as it seemed, she was lucky enough to have noticed a lump on her left breast during a self-examination in time. Worried about the new discovery, she went to see her doctor in a private hospital in Festac Town, Lagos.

“I showed him and he said I should go to a public facility. I went. I did a mammogram and showed him the result. He referred me to the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) to do a breast scan. I did all the necessary things and saw a doctor, who wasn’t satisfied with the result.”

Now, things fell apart for Effiong that even the centre could not hold after she was told her the lump was cancerous. “The doctor requested I did Biaxin because he wanted to know the type of lump. When the result came out, it turned out to be cancerous. I broke down and cried like a baby,” Effiong said.

But at that time in June, doctors were on strike at LUTH in 2013, her operation was delayed until November of that same year. And that was when she did a radical mastectomy (a medical operation to remove one’s breast). No doubt, this became the beginning of her journey.

According to the survivor, after the operation on November 30, the doctor advised her to rest at home for one month before chemotherapy. “I was placed on a six-course chemo– once every three weeks for six weeks. But it wasn’t easy at all; injecting toxin into one’s body to kill cancerous cells. The trauma was so much that at a point I thought I was going to die,” she said.

Swiftly on the heels of the chemo, Effiong, a then civil servant with the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN), went for radiotherapy. “After a month, I went for radiotherapy to radiate the affected area to kill anything left.”

Sadly at this stage of excruciating moments, she saw hell for the first time in her life but refused to enter. “My hair pulled off. All my nails and everything went off. I saw hell. But thank God, I pulled through.

“The doctors counselled me. There at LUTH, I had all my treatment. The doctors treated me very well. They tried their best. But you know government hospitals, we all know what they go through. So, we don’t blame them; they are not well treated by the government.”

She explained further that she was under treatment for months. “When a normal human being is being injected with poisonous syringe – even till now, it still hasn’t relieved me. I don’t do what I used to do before. The doctors will tell you to take it easy; don’t stress yourself too much.”

Effiong, a monosyllabic speaker, said she was yet to experience relieve till date. “Now, we, cancer survivors, don’t eat normal foods. We don’t take sugar, soft drinks, less carbohydrate, but we take plenty of fruits and vegetables. We keep going to the hospital every now and then for check as recommended by the expert. Another thing is that at every point in time, a cancer patient still runs some test, do mammogram on the other breast to know whether there is anything; they check the blood, the kidney and every vital part of your body. So, visiting the hospital for regular check becomes a part of your lifestyle.”

As a fighter, she believed firmly that while there is life there is a will. “I lost my job at PHCN as a result of the illness. But I thank God I’m alive. Life is very much important. Even before the discovery, I didn’t know that anyone could survive cancer.”

Now in her late 40s, Effiong reminisced what the treatment cost her and why many Nigerians still die of cancer. “Cancer treatment is something that is capital-intensive. Between 2013 and now, I’ve spent close to four million naira.

She told THISDAY further that poverty remains a burning factor that kills cancer patients, saying that people do not have money. “Cancer is something that without money no magic can happen. Then they go away.

“Another thing that is killing cancer patients is our religious leaders. They tell some of these people not to do any operation; that they are healed. Whatever happens in one’s life, pray first then see a shrink. Whatever treatment the doctor administers, go for it and keep praying,” she added.

Accordingly, she lamented that husbands have not been helping matters. She said that when a woman finds out she has a lump and the doctor says the solution was to remove her breast, some husbands refuse, threatening to divorce such women. I know many women who have died as a result of this. Husbands should assist their wives.”

Having trailed this gnashing route in 2013, Effiong wishes no woman such experience. “If you look around, so many people die of cancer. They don’t detect it early. An average woman should do a breast check always; not just wait for the doctor. This thing is in all parts of the body, not just the breast. Don’t take anything for granted. But in all my family has been so supportive, especially my husband.”

Also, C.O.P.E, (Care Organisation Public Enlightenment), a foundation giving hope to cancer patients, have been there for me. The President and National Coordinator, Mrs. Ebunola M. Anozie, who runs the foundation is a great woman, who is worthy of emulation,” she said.

Of course, she continued that Nigerian hospitals have got very outdated equipment. “There is a machine called bone scan. In the whole of Nigeria, there is only one. It is in University of Ibadan Teaching Hospital, the Oyo State capital. It is even outdated. It doesn’t give the accurate result.”

Therefore, interceding for other patients, l urged the government to help cancer patients. “They should update radiotherapy machines. There should be a body that should care for them. This way the number of deaths could reduce.”

While Effiong is lucky to have survived the deadly scourge, there are over two million Nigerians still grappling with various forms of cancer, with little or no financial support to tackle the disease which is expensive to treat. Also, availability of treatment facilities has also in no small measure contributed to the death of several Nigerians who were unable to access radiotherapy machines.

Just recently, a Professor of Clinical and Radiation Oncologist, Prof. Sunday Adeyemi Adewuyi, in a presentation at a CEAFON cancer summit in Abuja, said the dearth of treatment machines in the country has aided deaths of cancer patients.

He said the abysmally poor cancer management in the country can be referred to as a death sentence for cancer patients because the country presently lacked the capacity to manage the several thousands of patients needing radiotherapy daily.

He explained that the recommended number of cancer machines, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is one machine to 250,000 population, or one machine to 350 to 450 cancer patients, but that Nigeria currently has seven radiotherapy machines which means there was one cancer machine to over 30 million people.

Checks by THISDAY have however shown that all seven cancer machines have in recent years never worked at the same time. Only one or two work at a given time, records show.

She lamented that husbands have not been helping matters. She said when a woman finds out she has a lump and the doctor says the solution is to remove her breast, some husbands refuse, threatening to divorce such women. I know many women who have died as a result of this. Husbands should assist their wives