Cancer patients in Nigeria go through experiences their counterparts in the advanced world know nothing about. FELIX NWADIOHA of the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) writes on the challenges facing cancer patients in the country
O God! Why me?’’ That was the exclamation of Mrs. Cecilia Okoro, a cancer patient at one of the six treatment centres in the country.
Okoro, who was diagnosed and treated for cancer at the University of Benin Teaching Hospital (UBTH), Benin, was referred to the hospital for radiotherapy.
She arrived at the centre on Tuesday only to be told at the hospital that new cancer cases were handled only on Mondays. She obtained a hotel accommodation and waited till the next Monday only to hear that the radiotherapy machine had broken down.
“Madam, our radiotherapy machine is bad,’’ said a hospital attendant when she was called upon for documentation. Other patients awaiting documentation were also informed about the development as the attendants announced:
“Attention patients, if you are here for radiotherapy, our machine is bad. It broke down three weeks ago.’’
“You may wish to visit another centre, or better still wait for further instructions from the oncologist,’’ they told the patients.
“O God! Why me? So I am going to die,’’ Okoro cried uncontrollably aloud as she heard the public announcement by the hospital staff.
It took no fewer than 15 other cancer patients to calm Okoro down and encourage her to believe she would not die of the disease. “You are not going to die my dear. Just put your trust in God and not the machine; you will be okay,’’ said Mrs. Shola Abdul, a breast cancer patient as she tried encouraging Okoro.
Narrating her experience to Okoro, Abdul said she has been suffering from breast cancer since 2006. “One of my breasts was cut off during surgery. Look at me, am I not healthy?’’
“I am from Kogi. I do not live in Abuja. I have been travelling on the very busy Okene-Lokoja-Abuja highway to attend clinic and check up all this while, ’’ she said.
Advising Okoro further, Abdul stressed: “aside from radiotherapy and chemotherapy, you must pray regularly to God who has the power to heal terminal sickness like cancer’’.
Abdul also recommended for Okoro the use of natural healing therapy, including lemon, ginger, garlic, carrot, and vegetables which, according to her, had been proved efficacious by international researchers.
She said lemon has been proved to be 10,000 times better and with less effect on the patient than chemotherapy used in orthodox medicine for cancer treatment.
Another patient, Ugochi Onuabuchi, advised: “Do not cry sister. You are older than me ad even married. I am 18 years old and a Mass Communication student at Auchi Polytechnic. I was diagnosed with cancer of the rectum after a failed major surgery.
“Look at me, I am carrying a colostomy. I am also referred here for radiotherapy like you. We will not die of the disease. It is not our portion, ’’ she prayed.
This scenario involving Okoro and other cancer patients may be the same in other designated cancer centres in Nigeria.
Other centres are the Ahmadu Bello University Teaching Hospital, Zaria; the University of Ibadan Teaching Hospital, Ibadan; the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, Idi-Araba; the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital, Enugu and the University of Maiduguri Teaching Hospital, Maiduguri.
All the centres handle clinical and surgical operations which oncologists should manage, and refer patients to the Lagos and Zaria centres which have functional radiotherapy machines.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) statistics says the various variants of cancer disease accounts for 7.6 million deaths, representing 13 per cent of all global deaths.
WHO projection is that 84 million people will die of cancer by 2020, if preventive steps are not taken now to tackle the disease, noting that mortality occurs mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, with breast cancer which is commonest in females accounting for 40.3 per cent.
The statistics show that in males, prostate cancer accounts for 29 per cent prevalence, followed by cervical cancer, 17.3 per cent; ovarian cancer, 3.7 per cent; lymphomas, 3.1 per cent; and skin cancer, 2.1 per cent.
A patient, Mrs.Uduak Ekanem, who decried the inadequacy of the Federal Government to handle the ever increasing cases of cancer in the country, suggested that issues such as cancer be given top priority by governments at all levels.
“If the health care system is okay, the issue of Nigerians running to India for their health needs will be reduced to the barest minimum,’’ she said.
Abdul, who decried the high cost of drugs for cancer treatment appealed to the Federal Government to subsidise the cost of cancer drugs to make them affordable.
Abdul said that the cheapest chemotherapy cost for breast cancer treatment was between N25,000 and N60,000.
A consultant oncologist at one of the teaching hospitals corroborated Abdul’s claim, adding that most of the chemotherapy used for cancer treatment in Nigeria are out-dated.
He said treating the disease with out-dated drugs was like scratching the surface, adding that modern drugs for the management and sustenance of cancer patients are costly.
The consultant said although the disease is a terminal one, “but we have drugs out there to sustain and prolong the lives of the patients’’.
He explained that the minimum cost of the new drugs was more than N90,000, while its administration is based on the stage of the disease. He added that the cost of treating and sustaining a patient at a stage of cancer of the rectum is N1 million and N2 million.
However, the Minister of Health, Dr. Onyebuchi Chukwu, expressed the determination of the Federal Government to tackle the problems of cancer patients in the country.
Chukwu said by 2015, many federal hospitals would have radiotherapy and nuclear medicine facilities to manage cancer effectively.
He said government had paid $9 million (about N14 million) counterpart fund in collaboration with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for the treatment of the disease.
The minister said the invested funds would be channeled to the prevention of cancer by incorporating the Human Papilloma Virus into the National Programme on Immunisation.
Medical analysts say government should not wait until 2015 to address the health challenges of cancer patients.
“We want the government to, as a matter of urgency, declare a state of emergency in the health sector. That is the best thing that can happen to the Transformation Agenda of Jonathan administration,’’ they say.
By Felix Nwadioha