The First Lady of Ondo State leading the procession on ‘Joy for Life’

Mary Ekah writes on the highpoints of BRECAN’s 20th anniversary and third international symposium, held in Akure, the Ondo State capital, to educate the public on what needs to be done to combat breast cancer

Twenty years ago, she fought and successfully conquered breast cancer. After the defeat, a new journey began for her, a journey not just as a survivor but as a testimony and inspiration for others. Twenty years down the lane, the battle is still on and today as an advocate against breast cancer, under the auspices of her NGO, Breast Cancer Association of Nigeria (BRECAN), which has existed for 20 years now, wife of Ondo State governor, Arabinrin Betty Anyanwu-Akeredolu is very determined and zealous to tell anyone and indeed everyone that this disease that is feared so much, can in fact be defeated if the right thing is done at the right time.

Breast cancer, experts say, is currently one of the most unresolved public health challenges facing the Nigeria’s healthcare system. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that about 250,000 cases of breast cancer are seen each year in Nigeria. Of these, nearly 10,000 deaths occur, which account for the highest numbers of deaths from breast cancer in any African country each year. Furthermore, recent evidence suggests that there is a trend towards increasing incidence of breast cancer in Nigerian women, due probably to decades of inaction in the country to deal with the problem.

And yet, it is evident that there is currently extremely low level of awareness about breast cancer by Nigerian women. This is due to inadequate knowledge of breast cancer by vulnerable women, and the poor integration of breast cancer prevention and treatment into Nigeria’s healthcare delivery system.

Alas! Breast cancer is the most common cancer and is the most common cause of death from cancer among Nigerian women. Whereas death from breast cancer has declined in many parts of the developed world, death rate from the disease has continued to rise in Nigeria. It was therefore imperative that the 20th anniversary and 3rd international symposium of the Breast Cancer Association of Nigeria was basically focused on breast cancer and how to counter the inaccurate perception about breast cancer that exists in Nigeria, and to make recommendations on ways to build a better understanding of the disease that would lead to its sustainable prevention and control.

Held at the International Events Centre (Dome), Akure last week, the event kicked off with a grand opening ceremony which had in attendance people from all walks of life who had not only come to celebrate with the wife of Ondo State governor, Betty Anyanwu-Akeredolu, a survivor of breast cancer for 20 years but to also proffer ways of curbing the dreaded disease. In attendance, was the wife of Kebbi State governor, Dr. Zainab Bagudu, wife of Kwara State governor, Mrs. Omolewa Ahmed, and other notable people from in and out of the country.

While welcoming guests, the host, Governor Oluwarotimi Akeredolu of Ondo State, who has been a solid rock to his wife over the years, said he had strong belief in advocacy of BRECAN, while promising to establish a breast cancer management centre to support the fight against the disease in the state and Nigeria at large. “I believe in your advocacy and I will do what I can for BRECAN because it is for people of Ondo State in particular and Nigeria in general. We will establish breast cancer management centre. We will pursue this with what we have and it will be done. It will be given to architect to be designed because breast cancer must be vigorously fought,” the governor said.

While soliciting for support for breast cancer awareness campaign and help for those in dire need to combat breast cancer, governor Akeredolu stressed that all hands must be on deck to fight the dreaded disease.

At the opening ceremony symposium of BRECAN 20th anniversary, which had the theme, ‘Prioritising Breast Cancer Survival in Nigeria’, Professor Friday Okonofua (FAS), Vice-Chancellor, University of Medical Sciences, Ondo City, Ondo State, during his presentation tagged, ‘Attitude Towards Breast Cancer in Nigeria: The Way Toward’, said currently, Nigeria has one of the highest prevalence rates of breast cancer in the developing world. He explained that part of the reasons for this worrisome trend was the persisting misconception about breast cancer by women which prevent the adoption of evidence-based methods for the prevention and treatment of the disease.

He explained that breast cancer is currently the most dominant cancer among women in Nigeria; and that it is the most common cause of death from cancers in women. Some of the background reasons for this trend, he said include the inadequate health seeking, behaviour for the disease by women.

He further spoke on the attitude and perception of women regarding the causes and methods of prevention, which he said bear negative consequences on early health seeking of the disease. He said because in most cases, breast lumps are not painful, women ignore the disease at early stages until it progresses to advanced stage.

While presenting the true facts about the causes, prevention and curative methods for breast cancer-based on the currently available evidence, the expert posited that although the causes of breast cancer are still not fully known, early recognition and treatment of the disease can subsequently increase the number of women who survive the disease.

He therefore made substantive recommendations on ways to improve community awareness on breast cancer in Nigeria in accordance with successful efforts that have been applied in other parts of the world.

“We believe that the efforts of organisations such as the Breast Cancer Association of Nigeria in building awareness about breast cancer is an effective and potentially impactful intervention for attending sustainable reduction of breast cancer disease burden at scale,” he noted.

While commending BRECAN and its management for the milestone achievement, he said the phenomenal impact that this frontline organisation has made in mobilising a national activism for the prevention and management of breast cancer cannot be over-emphasised.

“Today BRECAN is one of the best examples of the critical role that non-governmental organisation can play in the country if they are properly integrated into the development plan. There is no doubt that BRECAN has shown extreme passion, devotion and commitment to educating women about the ill-effect of breast cancer, a worthy cause which it pursues relentlessly and vigorously.

“The number of persons who may have been reached and who have benefited directly or indirectly from the messages of BRECAN may never be accurately known but there is no doubt that this organisation has stamped its footprints in the sands of time and has provided critical benchmark with which best performing organisations in health and social development will be measured in this country for many years to come.”

While commending the pioneering efforts of BRECAN for championing the cause of breast cancer prevention and treatment in Nigeria over the past 20 years, he suggested that specific measures such as providing evidence-based information to women to demand breast cancer prevention services and the improved supply of qualitative breast cancer prevention and treatment services would be critical in efforts to reduce the burden of breast cancer disease and deaths in Nigeria.

“I wish to specially congratulate the Founder of BRECAN, Her Excellency Arabinrin Betty Anyanwu-Akeredolu for her great leadership qualities, resilience and resourcefulness, which have led BRECAN to this stage. She is a great example of what can be achieved in the country when women are given the rightful place in society, especially in the political configuration of our dear country.”

He described the Ondo First Lady as a frontline patriot and visionary and a highly intelligent mobiliser who will stop at nothing but to see to the social transformation of this country when she believes in an issue.

BRECAN’s founder, Betty Anyanwu–Akeredolu, who was extremely disappointed over the indifferent attitude exhibited towards the conference by doctors and other stakeholders in the state health sector, noted, “I brought to them an international conference and what probably kept them away is that they were told to pay for it but if you want to participate in this kind of conference elsewhere in the world, the registration fee alone could be from 800 to 1,000 dollars and then you would buy flight tickets, book for accommodation and all that which would gulp about a million naira and these same people BRECAN brought here are the ones you are going to meet there. Some of these doctors were probably waiting for government to pay for them or claim they do not have money and therefore missed this great opportunity. You would agree with me that this is a conference of international standard and yet doctors and surgeons from the state hospital as well as other stakeholders from the state’s health sector didn’t show serious interest in it and we hear of how our women are mutilated by operations carried out by some of these doctors because they don’t go for continuous education like conferences and workshops of this nature that would have sharpened their skills. They are stocked here and don’t know what is going on in today’s world and yet we brought something like this to their footsteps, which would improve their skills yet they were not here.”

Not discouraged by the nonchalant attitude shown by stakeholders in the health sector towards the disease, Mrs. Akeredolu, said BRECAN was a beacon of hope for womenfolk, stressing that breast cancer could be defeated. She decried the continued rising cases of the disease on a daily basis and said that BRECAN would continue to support movement to help as regards breast cancer. “We do provide platform for local and international groups to render assistance in waging war against breast cancer and provision of modern techniques.

“And we are to introduce comprehensive initiatives to Ondo State Government to support our programmes and I will continue to mount pressure on Mr. Governor, who has promised to be of help and I know he will not renege on his promise. I am proud of BRECAN achievements recorded so far and the struggle continues,” she said.

And indeed the struggle continued, as this very determined advocate and First Lady of Ondo State took the campaign to the State House of Assembly where she was warmly received by Deputy Speaker, Iroju Ogundeji, on behalf of the Speaker, Bamidele Oleyelogun. The essence of the visit was to intimate the House of BRECAN’s plan to come up with a bill on cancer control and establishment of a cancer treatment centre in Ondo State.

““It has always been my dream that someday I will be at the National Assembly to lobby our senators. Charity they say begins at home – this is our own National Assembly in Ondo State. BRECAN is here today to tell you that we need to do something to save the lives of our women who do not have money for diagnosis. We have come to let you know that there is need have a robust cancer control plan in place. BRECAN plans to come up with a bill on cancer control and for the establishment of cancer treatment centre in Ondo State,” she added while stressing that BRECAN will continue to create awareness as it is the entry point in the fight against breast cancer.

Thanking the legislators for their support so far, she urged them to hasten in passing a bill to support the fight against breast cancer in the state, noting that without the collective efforts and collaboration of all arms of government and members of the society at large, the fight against breast cancer would continue to be very tough.

She said, “Cancer treatment is very expensive and that is why we are seeking the support of the Ondo State House of Assembly in combating this scourge.

“To defeat breast cancer, every arm of government and in fact the whole society needs to work together. It is for this reason that awareness is very important. If our women have access to information and healthcare facilities, this battle would be won in no time.”

Speaking during an interactive session with members of BRECAN on the floor of the House in Akure, the Deputy Speaker, Ogundeji, on behalf of the Speaker, Oleyelogun, said that they would do all within their capacities as legislators to ensure that the battle against breast cancer was won.

While promising that the House will give accelerated passage to the proposed bill on cancer control, the deputy speaker said, “I want to appreciate you for what you are doing and for starting the awareness campaign against breast cancer, especially to educate the Ondo State women. Before now, I used to think that breast cancer was not curable but after listening to you today, I can understand that with adequate information and early intervention, breast cancer can be cured and even prevented. I want to assure you that the assembly will put all efforts to ensure the appropriation of the bill for the control of breast cancer in Ondo State so that the disease will no longer pose as a death sentence to any of our women in Ondo State.”

“Before your address, I thought breast cancer is not curable but with your address, I now know that with adequate care, breast cancer can be controlled. It is in our interest that breast cancer should not be a death sentence to any woman in Ondo State. We are assuring you that whenever the executive is bringing their appropriation bill to the House and cancer control is included; you will have no difficulty with us and we will give it accelerated passage,” he added.

Speaking further, Ogundeji said, “The issue of breast cancer is no longer a small matter and that is why as legislators interested in the welfare and safety of our people, we will do all we can to support the ongoing fight against the disease led by BRECAN. We believe that the moment that the proposed bill is passed and the breast cancer centre erected, our women would no longer die of this disease that can be defeated.”

The campaign didn’t just end at the premises of the Ondo State House of Assembly but proceeded to the streets of Akure the next day as BRECAN members, survivors, supporters as well as top government officials, women groups as well political office holders embarked en mass on a walk tagged ‘Jog for Life’, kicked off by 7:00a.m. from NEPA Neighbourhood Market to Arcade Ground, Igbatoro Road Akure. The participants in their thousands in branded pink colour T-shirts including the wife of the deputy governor, Mrs. Ajewole Ajayi, sang various solidarity songs in supports of the total eradication of cancer in Nigeria.

After ‘Joy for Life’, the next port of call was a fundraising dinner, scheduled for the night in a makeshift tent at the Smokin Hills Golf Resort, Ilara-Mokin, Ondo. Even the heavy storm that let down the rain in strong torrent, just when the night event was about to take off, tearing down the tent flat to the ground, could not stop the dinner from holding. It indeed held, when most people had given up hope that the shattered tent was end of discussion for the day. It all go a long way to show how determined and strong-willed, this Ondo First Lady is in fighting the disease.