The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines cancer as a group of diseases that involve abnormal cell growth which is capable of metastasis (the spread of cancer cells from the initial or primary site of the disease to another part of the body).
However, experts say not all cancers possess the ability to metastasise to other locations in the body via lymph or blood. Cancers could be in various types, such as cervical, ovarian, breast, lung, cancer of the blood (leukemia), prostate cancer and many others. Like many other countries in the world, the disease is wrecking great havoc in Nigeria, killing people in thousands each year. Sadly, a good number of Nigerians are suffering from clinical features of the disease or another, but they have no idea that it is cancer that is gradually destroying their lives.
The incidence and damaging effect of cancer in Nigeria cannot be overestimated. It is overwhelming and rapidly increasing in number and the mortality rate is high. According to some medical doctors who spoke with The Nation, the scourge of cancer and its destructive effects have been a recurring decimal and a good number of families have shared the pain of losing their members to cancer.
Also prominent Nigerians have succumbed to cancer. Before now, very few screening and diagnostic centres were available for early detection. At present, cancer treatment centres are also a rarity in the country.
In 2009, the late President Umaru Yar’ Adua’s wife, Hajiya Turai Yar’ Adua, came up with the initiative to establish the first dedicated International Cancer Centre in Nigeria and West Africa, which was located in Abuja. The centre was meant to be an internationally recognised centre fully equipped and professionally staffed. It was to be wholly comprehensive and committed to promoting excellence in cancer related care (diagnosis and treatment), cancer prevention, cancer education, training and research. But the truth remains that the state of the hospital is currently nothing to write home about. That is why Nigerians who can afford the huge cost have been traveling overseas for treatment. For now, major specialist and teaching hospitals in the country can only manage the disease at great cost to the patients.
Worried by this trend, the wife of the Kebbi State Governor, Dr. Zainab Bagudu recently donated a sum of N9, 654, 725. 00 million to the management of the National Hospital Abuja, for the settlement of the medical bills of 30 cancer patients being managed by the hospital.
The governor’s wife, who is the founder of Medicaid Cancer Foundation (MCF), at the official presentation of the dummy cheque, advised major stakeholders to find means of helping cancer patients who cannot afford their medical bills.
She vowed that her foundation will continue to assist the less privileged in funding their medical bills, especially those suffering from cancer.
Her words: “We have seen patients that are suffering from cancer. Some of them are undergoing chemotherapy and some, radiotherapy. I believe that the actual financial commitment has been made. It is not just about financial support, it is about having the confidence to be able to come to the facility that would deliver on our vision.”
The Chief Medical Director (CMD), National Hospital, Dr. Ja’faru Momoh who received the dummy cheque on behalf of the hospital, called on other well-meaning Nigerians and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to emulate the gesture of the foundation by assisting cancer patients in the hospital.
Highlighting the plight of many cancer patients in the hospital, Momoh said, “At any point in time, we have over 40 cancer patients seriously ill on admission and many cannot afford the care.
“Two weeks ago, you went round the hospital and you saw several cancer patients on admission for chemotherapy and you made a pledge through the foundation to do something to ensure that they can continue their medication. Chemotherapy is known to be very expensive and sometimes runs into several millions of Naira to complete a round of treatment. We assure you that the patients will benefit. We have ensured that they have continued to receive treatment and therefore we will be able to apply this fund judiciously to make sure that they are properly treated.
“We want to plead that well-meaning Nigerians and other non- governmental organisations (NGOs) should emulate what you are doing in the area of cancer.
“The challenge has been in funding their care, particularly chemotherapy. The drugs are very expensive. We have been on a lot of advocacy drive to get the prices reduced.”
The President, Africa Organisation for research and training on cancer and also a Chief Consultant, Clinical and Regulation Oncologist at the National Hospital, Dr. Bello Muhammed, raised an alarm over poor number of professionals handling cancer cases in Nigeria.
Muhammed said: “This country needs about three thousand radiation oncologists and we have only 70. Of that 70, only about 20 are working in centres that have facilities.
“The foundation’s effort is a very welcome development because you do know that a lot of our patients are unable to afford care and this assistance will go a long way in settling their medical bills.
“The statistics by WHO is that we should have 180 machines for a population of 180 million. We have four functional machines in the country. Government will do more by supporting NGOs because government alone cannot do it. NGOs must rise to the challenge of treating patients and also providing services.”
Challenges of cancer treatment
The challenge posed by cancer and cancer-related diseases is increasingly becoming a bigger problem in developing countries than the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)/Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). The burden of cancer-related health challenges in developing countries is currently approaching pandemic proportions.
In Nigeria, cancer is often being perceived as death sentence, owing to a number of reasons, including poorly equipped hospitals, lack of knowledge on the part of the people, lack of trained oncology human resource, lack of drugs and high cost of treatment, limited screening centres, government’s poor attitude towards policy formulation and implementation.
Lack of screening centres
Screening for early signs of neoplastic changes is one of the major ways of preventing and detecting cancer in its earliest stages to avert devastating danger. Some types of cancer, especially cervical cancer, can generally be prevented through vaccination and screening and treatment of early lesion which might lead to neoplastic changes. different parts of the country. But it is quite unfortunate that in most developing countries, including Nigeria, there are only one or two cancer screening centres located only in the capital cities.
Access to drugs
Cancer drugs are largely inaccessible. Access to cancer drugs is still limited or nonexistent for most cancer patients in developing countries. Today, both treatment and diagnostics for cancer are expensive and difficult to obtain.
Some doctors who also spoke with The Nation under anonymity recommended that governments in developing countries, including Nigeria, should place a high priority on cancer and allot more percentage of their annual health budget to cancer care, screening, prevention and treatment.
One of the doctors said: “Public awareness about cancer should be given attention just as it was done in the earlier days of HIV/AIDS. This would help correct health-seeking behaviour of the citizens which contributed to the failure in the treatment of cancers. Drugs for cancer treatment should be subsidised as in the case of HIV/AIDS to make it both affordable and accessible.”
The stark reality
Today, cases of cancers of all types are common in Nigeria. Reports indicate that hardly any week or month passed without cancer-related deaths being recorded. Reports further indicate that thousands of people with cancer-related issues are dying silently. Unfortunately, not much is being done by the authorities and relevant stakeholders to arrest the frightening situation. To worsen an already bad situation, many people are not aware of the dangers posed by cancer. Trained medical personnel are not readily available. Dedicated cancer centres, where they exist at all, are ill-equipped. For now, the teeming population of cancer patients would have to rely on the benevolence of kind-hearted individuals like Dr Zainab Bagudu and organisations like the Medicaid Cancer Foundation.
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