Exquisite Magazine speaks to Tolulope Falowo the Executive Director of CancerAware Nigeria. The primary aim of CancerAware Nigeria is to raise more awareness for gynaecological and breast cancer.
In 2012, she realised how difficult it was to find any information on screening centres and general cancer awareness or even getting tests done. What she started as a social media campaign to highlight these gaps quickly morphed into a full-fledged cause and CancerAware Nigeria was born.
EM: Tell us about CancerAware Nigeria.
We are a women’s health intervention charity with a focus on cancers specifically Breast and Gynaecological cancers. We promote the prevention and early detection of these common cancers among women in Nigeria.
EM: What is the aim of CancerAware Nigeria?
Our mission at CancerAware Nigeria is simple, to reduce the rising cancer incidence in the country, especially among women, through education, advocacy and patient support. We were established in 2014 and below are some of the impacts we have made by the grace of God since inception;
- 8125 – Number of women screened for breast and cervical cancer
- 100,000+ – Number of beneficiaries directly educated about cancer through our public engagement programmes.
- 112 – Number of cancer cases supported with free treatment.
- 10,000,000+ – Audience reached via our social media campaigns
- First free screening Mammogram Programme in the country targeted at women who cannot afford them.
- Launch of the Patient Support Initiative which provides free chemotherapy drugs to indigent patients undergoing treatment for cancer.
- Launch of the #14000Reasons HPV vaccination advocacy campaign to include the HPV vaccine into the country’s immunisation schedule.
EM: About the work being done by CancerAware Nigeria, what services do you offer?
- Awareness Campaigns
There are many myths and misconceptions about cancer. CancerAware is committed to public education and awareness of cancer in Nigeria. We educate about Breast and Gynaecological cancers, actively propagating the message of prevention and early detection.
- Screening and Health Outreaches
We realise that diagnosing cancer early is vital in its treatment and we actively propagate this in our campaigns. The community is at the heart of our work at CancerAware and we organise free medical outreaches especially in under-served communities of Lagos state. We also strongly advocate for regular individual health checks.
We give practical and treatment support to women living with Breast and Gynaecological ( cervical, ovarian, womb, vulva and vaginal cancers) cancers. We are able to offer this support through donations from the public. This year, we launched the MobiPINK MBC project (MBC stands for metastatic breast cancer which is Stage 4 cancer). The project among other things provides psycho-social support to patients living with metastatic breast cancer and their caregivers. We also launch the telephone Helpline this October.
- Cancer Policy Agenda Development
We work to put cancer at the forefront of our national health agenda in order to give it the priority it requires. We are a voice for cancer control in Nigeria. We advocate for policies that will make cancer screening and treatment a matter of prime importance in Nigeria.
EM: How have you been able to sustain CancerAware Nigeria?
We are able to execute our programmes and do our work at CancerAware mainly through donations.
EM: Tell us about the challenges faced or still facing?
The challenges are many. Nigeria is seeing a rise in cancer cases – especially breast and cervical cancer. Most of these cases present at the hospital in the advanced stages of the disease.
There is a huge disparity in the area of cancer care in Nigeria. Indigent and low-income individuals facing a cancer diagnosis in the country usually do not have good outcomes. There are several reasons for this. These include poverty, ignorance, cultural beliefs, inadequate referral systems, inadequate diagnosis, fear of diagnosis, ill-trained health workers, lack of national cancer screening programs and a dearth of well-equipped treatment centres to mention a few.
A large percentage of cancer cases presented at health institutions in the country are in the late stages. You see women coming in with Stage 4 breast cancer at diagnosis; which means cancer has spread beyond the breast and nearby lymph nodes to other parts of the body (most often the bones, lungs, liver or brain). In Nigeria, about 50% of breast cancer cases are diagnosed at Stage IV.
Also, there is no National Cancer Screening programme to help with prevention and early detection of common cancers such as breast and cervical cancer. There are inadequate funding resources available to help patients with the huge costs of cancer treatment. Many people are left on their own with no succour. The problems are many.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month,
EM: What is breast cancer?
Breast cancer is a type of cancer that starts in the breast. Breast cancer occurs in women although men can also have breast cancer. Symptoms of breast cancer may include a lump in the breast, bloody discharge from the nipple and changes in the shape or texture of the nipple or breast among others.
EM: Do you think people are aware of breast cancer and taking precaution?
The narrative is gradually changing. Things are different now from when we first started. More people are aware of breast cancer but it is not enough. The awareness and information drive must reach every nook and cranny of the country. Also, it mustn’t end at awareness, action must follow. Women must do their regular breast checks (monthly and annually). Women aged 40 and above should have a screening mammogram each year. If there is a history of breast cancer in the family, you should speak to your doctor about personalised breast cancer screening.
EM: What precaution should people be taking to reduce the death rates in Nigeria?
All hands must be on deck to reduce the incidence and fatalities from cancer in Nigeria. Cancer does not discriminate, it can happen to anyone. We must be aware of the risk factors for common cancers. We must take our health checks seriously and do annual checks, not just for cancer but the whole body and system checks. You can schedule this around your birthday or at the beginning or end of the year so it would serve as a reminder. Some cancers are preventable, e.g cervical cancer and many cancers can be treated successfully when found early. We must all take personal responsibility for our health.
Are there any preventative measures women should take regularly?
For Breast cancer, know the signs, symptoms and risk factors. As a woman, you should do the following
- A breast self-examination at least once a month
- A clinical breast examination at least once a year
- If aged 40 and above, a screening mammogram each year
- If there is a history of breast cancer in the family, you should speak to your doctor about personalised breast cancer screening.
EM: Does breast cancer only affect older women?
No. Breast cancer can affect women of all ages. One of our early support patients at CancerAware was just 18 years old.
EM: What advice would you give to all women about breast cancer?
Breast cancer is not a death sentence. The important thing is early detection with the right treatment. Check your breasts regularly. If you see anything unusual, go to the hospital immediately, don’t delay. If you are not satisfied with a particular hospital/clinic, get a second opinion.
EM: What advice would you give to women who are living with breast cancer?
You are not alone. At CancerAware, we are here for you on your journey. Our MobiPINK Helpline is open 6 days a week for women with Stage 4 cancer and their caregivers. The Helpline number is 0809 4444 039. Our counsellors are waiting to assist you.
EM: What treatments are there for breast cancer?
The conventional treatments for breast cancer include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and targeted therapy. I must mention at this point, that many individuals are being taken advantage of and deceived into believing certain diets, juices or herbal remedies can cure cancer. ⠀
We have had too many instances of women who refused conventional treatment after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Rather, they choose to in their own words “go organic” and begin to take herbal remedies.
Conventional treatment is still the only way to treat cancer. In fact, some herbal products may, and have proven to be, harmful when taken during chemotherapy or radiation therapy because they interfere with how these treatments work. Also, if an individual is diagnosed with cancer, they should be treated and managed or co-managed by an Oncologist.⠀
Women feel like having procedures like mastectomy will make them feel less like a woman. What’s your advice on this?
Losing a breast(s) due to breast cancer is not an easy choice to make. Thankfully, today, there are various options available to women who have mastectomies, from breast reconstruction to breast prosthesis. Always maintain a positive attitude. Remember, the mastectomy is part of the treatment to curb cancer and save your life.
EM: What should their family and friends be aware of?
Friends, family and caregivers of women undergoing treatment for breast cancer must support them in all ways possible; emotionally, financially, physically, e.t.c. Cancer treatment is a journey and we must be there for our loved ones who go through it
EM: Is Breast Cancer a death sentence?
No, it is not. Early detection with the Right treatment saves lives.
EM: What is your goal with Cancer Aware Nigeria on breast cancer and other cancers you focus on?
- To reduce the rising cancer incidence in the country.
- To have a populace educated about these common cancers; prevention, early detection signs, symptoms, risk factors and who are taking personal responsibility for their health.
EM: How do you define success?
There are many parameters by which we can measure success. On a national level, when we have a nationwide breast and cervical screening programme, that would be a big plus for all our advocacy efforts that have gone into this.
EM: What motivates you?
My faith in God and my acceptance of this cause as an assignment and my own little way of making my space of the world a better place.
For information and enquiries, you can reach CancerAware on the following channels:
Facebook: CancerAware Nigeria
Breast Cancer Helpline: 0809 4444 039
To support CancerAware Nigeria’s work, you can make a donation at www. canceraware.org.ng/donate