IN 2017 Sarah Yug felt a lump in her breast, she went to a hospital in Benue State, and after several scans and tests, she was told she has cancer.
Yug, an indigene of Benue state who plaits hair for a living told The ICIR that “After the first sets of tests, they were not satisfied with the result, which then made me go through another test which is needle biopsy and later surgical biopsy and from there, I did mastectomy and started my chemotherapy in Benue state, costing me about a million naira.”
The National Cancer Institute defines cancer as a disease in which some of the body’s cells grow uncontrollably and spread to other parts of the body. The disease often needs some kind of radiation to kill the abnormal cells.
In 2019 only four cancer treatment centres were functional in the country the National Medical Association ( NMA) president was reported to have said. Two years later, in 2021 the Federal government approved 12 additional hospitals for chemotherapy.
Due to the dearth of cancer treatment centres, Yug would have to travel to a place that has a functioning radiotherapy machine to continue her treatment. In the process of searching for one, she came across a non-governmental organisation – Project Pink Blue – that helps cancer patients access treatment by raising funds for them.
For people like Yug who have to travel to access care, aside from the treatment fee, they will still need funds for transport, accommodation, feeding, accompanying caregiver and other expenses.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Cancer is the second leading cause of death globally. The health body also noted that in 2018 Nigeria recorded an estimated number of 116,000 new cases, as well as 41,000 cancer-related deaths.
A medical doctor, Folorunsho Sheriff told The ICIR that lack of facilities, willingness to listen to instructions, religious beliefs, and traditional intervention/herbs are some of the causes of cancer deaths in Nigeria.
Sheriff who is a consultant and the head of radiation and clinical oncology unit at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife told The ICIR that the situation of cancer is worrisome despite having an increased number of citizens suffering from cancer, Nigeria has fewer than 10 radiotherapy machines across the country.
“The facilities are grossly inadequate, but it’s still good compared to before. In 2015, there were no working radiotherapy machines in the country; two might be manageable but they still break down very often. Having less than 10 machines in 2022 means the money for the treatment will be much. It cost around 1 million,” he said.
He explained that the high cost of treatment makes people seek other alternatives like traditional and or religious.
“I have seen patients running away after the first course of chemotherapy to seek traditional intervention”, he said.
The WHO suggested that Nigeria requires at least 300 radiotherapy machines to effectively address the gaps in cancer treatment in the country. Pending while these machines are obtained which is posited will help bring down the cost, Project Pink Blue is chipping in by providing aid to patients.
This they do through their social media crowdfunding campaign, donor funding, linking patients with other funding organisations, advocacy and also through their ‘Adopt a patient’ initiative. They also did a training campaign for medical personal working with cancer patients.
Runcie Chidebe the founder said the organisation started as his National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) community project in 2013. It became a functional help centre for cancer patients in 2014.
“More people are talking about HIV, but very few people are talking about cancer. Very few cancer doctors are available, so instead of complaining, we decided to fill that gap, and have them registered. We then started to reach out to the people in the communities, creating awareness, providing free access screening” Chidebe told The ICIR.
Chidebe said knowing that the basis of good healthcare is skilful health practitioners, they trained many medical practitioners on cancer treatment across the country, through their ‘Upgrade Oncology’ project.
“We have also partnered with the US government to provide training for doctors, pharmacists and nurses, and we always bring some American doctors to train their colleagues. Last year, two American doctors trained about 36 pharmacists, they spent 16 days in Nigeria. In 2018, we did the same thing, they trained 44 cancer doctors. Also, in 2016, a nurse trained 33 nurses. We’re also planning to train about 50 pathologists” he said.
He added that “the reason [for the training] is to close the gap between knowledge and skills” so as to ensure better healthcare.”
He explained that they also mobilised a protest to urge the government to implement a bill that takes care of cancer patients.
He said “In 2016, we led advocacy, to get the national assembly to pass the bill to establish the national institute for cancer research and treatment. In December 2017, the bill was signed by President Muhammadu Buhari, it’s a very big achievement. The same thing happened in 2018, largely through our advocacy, we got the national assembly to set aside a fund, to make an appropriation of the Cancer Health Fund. Initially, it was called Catastrophic Health Finance.”
Beyond policy and training of practitioners, the initiative has raised funds for patients through crowdfunding and local and international donors and partners.
He said “We have different channels, we have that of putting them on social media, so people can donate directly to us or to them. When we partnered with AIT, we sent the patient’s information to them, they filmed their story, put it on air and raised money for them. There are other channels called Adoptive patients where we send the direct information and put it on our website and ask some of our partners to adopt each of the patients.”
Juliana Igagu, 49, is one of the beneficiaries of the ‘adoptive patients’ campaign. she was adopted by a woman – Nina – who funds her treatment.
Igagu was diagnosed with cancer in 2017 and had a mastectomy in the same year. Mastectomy is a surgery to remove all breast tissue from a breast as a way to treat or prevent breast cancer.
After spending around one million naira on treatment and surgery, she had no money again to go for radiotherapy sessions until she got adopted in 2021.
Igagu said Nina paid for her radiotherapy treatment and gave her N300,000 monthly for check-ups and treatment.
“Through their adoptive patient project, I was adopted by Mrs Nina who spent over three million for my treatment in Abuja,” Igagu told The ICIR.
For Joy Ndubusi, the organisation raised funds for her through the crowdfunding they do through the media. According to her daughter, Nkechi, they were able to raise N80, 000.
“Yes. We received help from them but they could only assist us with N80,000” she said.
Another cancer patient posted on the organisation’s Facebook was Adekunle Sunday.
Sunday who is now late received N200,000 from crowdfunding.
His wife told The ICIR that “My husband is late now but while he was alive, the organisation raised around N200,000 for his treatment.”
Gloria Okwu is another survivor of cancer. She was 32 when she was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer in 2017. She also had a mastectomy that year. Lack of funds was one of the reasons she did not continue with treatment.
She said “Having stopped the treatment for two years, I had a reoccurrence, the lump started growing. It was the lump that I saw the first time that I removed the breast, so it started coming again at the chest. There was no breast there again, so I knew I had to find a way to continue my treatment.”
After the chemotherapy session, Okwu proceeded for radiotherapy with the help of project Pink Blue
“In 2019, I started chemotherapy at the National hospital, I did 8 sessions. After that, I did my radiotherapy with the National hospital and that was how I was able to know Project Pink Blue. I was able to access funds through them. There was this cancer organisation at the time that was helping patients, project Pink Oak is the name. I had to go through Project Pink Blue as a verified patient and I was able to get access up to N600,000 for my radiotherapy session,” she explained.
Beyond financial support, Okwu is one of the two cancer survivors that was employed by project Pink Blue after losing her job.
“Project Pink Blue gave preference to people who are cancer survivors and part of their volunteers. I was both, so, I was given the job coupled with the fact that I did well during the process,” she explained.
The plan, according to the managing director of Project Pink Blue, Chidebe, is to reintegrate survivors back into society and also provide them with the hope of a better tomorrow.
Another Beneficiary who spoke to The ICIR is Oyedeje Bolu.
The 59 years old woman who was diagnosed with three different cancers since 2014 at the University College Hospital, Ibadan and National hospital, Abuja has benefited from the Project Pink Blue counselling.
Although she had her treatment funded by Her Radio, she, however, said “I am part of the support group, and they have helped a lot through most of their programs. I also appreciated their psychological support”
Chidebe told The ICIR that because of limited funding they are not able to help everyone.
Furthermore, sometimes, crowdfunding does not raise enough money to be able to cater for the patient’s treatment, like in the case of Ndubisi who got only N80,000.
“Another challenge is clinical trials for cancer drugs. For a very large population of over 200 million, every year thousands of Nigerians are affected by breast cancer and about 72 thousand die every year. Only a few clinical trials are happening in Nigeria which is very bad” Chidebe said.
Therefore to further improve the situation, government policies signed into law should be implemented and the government should provide enough radiotherapy machines. This according to a cancer survivor, Kayode Ibrahim would reduce the cost of treatment.
“A lot of people see having cancer as a death sentence and would prefer going to religious houses or depending fully on herbs to get treatment,” he added.
This story was produced in partnership with Nigeria Health Watch through the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.