This scourge called cancer has cut short lives of millions of men, women and children across the world. The attendant myths are the reason why the awareness campaigns can never be enough. Then there’s the screening stage where a lot of people dread as it is when the truth is revealed. Through these stages, patients require support and attention and this is why StandUpToCancer Nigeria has taken it upon itself to cater to cancer patients and provide the necessary support to live through the times.
In this interview with YNaija’s Impact365, founder of StandUpToCancer Nigeria, Caleb Egwuenu shares details of the passionate journey and enlightens us about cancer, its awareness and upcoming events.
Please tell us more about Stand Up To Cancer Nigeria?
Stand Up To Cancer Nigeria is a cancer advocacy organization and our mission is to reduce the burden of cancer in Nigeria through awareness, advocacy, screening, patient support and research.
What inspired you to set up the initiative?
I lost my cousin and aunty to cancer and all I knew about cancer was that “it was a white man’s disease”. These deaths were attributed to some mystical and out of the ordinary powers. However in 2008, when I started studying more about cancer and talking to several persons, I realized that cancer could happen to anyone; cancer does not discriminate. It was a wake-up call to me: if I could have such notions, there will be many other young people like me who would have the same idea. Thereafter, I started a Facebook group in 2008 that grew up to 5,000 members ,consisting of mostly young adults. In 2009, we metamorphosed into a registered NGO and the rest is history.
You’re based in Abuja, how has the acceptability been and do you work in other parts of the country too?
The acceptability has been very encouraging and it has also affected the way we do our work. For example, since we started conducting breast clinical examination for women, we only use female doctors to do the screening, even though we have male doctors as volunteers. This policy has attracted a lot of women to our screening centers.
Tell us more about your forthcoming event, Eat and Screen?
Eat and Screen is an initiative that we started in October 2016, it’s one of our quarterly events. The idea of the program is to encourage cancer screening and healthy eating. In summary, we partner with an organization that provides healthy food, we set up a mobile tent at the premises and screen all persons visiting the restaurant for breast cancer, cervical cancer, hypertension, diabetes and viral hepatitis B test. Even those who do not purchase any meal are still screened. In 2017, we hope to take the event to Lagos and maybe other parts of the country. If any healthy food joint wants to host us, they can send us an email on [email protected]
Do you think cancer has been effectively managed in Nigeria?
It depends on what aspect of management you are talking about, if its treatment, then the answer is a big NO. Not that we don’t have highly qualified oncologists in the country. We do, but they are few in number and also they don’t have the right drugs or equipment to work with. Secondly, the chemotherapy drugs are very expensive and only the wealthy patients can afford such. Thirdly, the radiotherapy machines are always out of order and patients in need of such have no access. I belong to the umbrella organization of cancer NGOs in Nigeria(Nigeria Cancer Society) and someone asked if there was any place in Nigeria where a PET scan could be done and the answer was “NO”. Few months ago, I also had a heartfelt chat with one of the leading oncologists in Nigeria, and I discussed setting up a patient navigation program to support patients, from diagnosis to treatment. He asked; “Caleb, where are you navigating them to?” His response is very valid: when persons are diagnosed with cancer, where do they start from and where will they end? Presently, the only effective form of treatment we have in Nigeria for cancer is surgery, even though we are still at the elementary level compared to western countries. This discussion is lengthy and let’s end it here; as it can take all day.
What is the average cancer awareness level in Nigeria?
For awareness, I must say that NGOs are really trying, not because I volunteer with one but that is the truth. The awareness level is high, usually in October. Everyone talks about cancer in October and after that, it seems cancer has stopped affecting Nigerians up till the October of the following year. Sometimes, awareness is seen to be synonymous with a jamboree. We however need to continue all year round, educating people on cancer prevention and early detection. Early detection actually saves lives.
We have a considerable level of breast cancer awareness, how does one detect cervical and prostate cancer?
For cervical cancer, it’s by doing a pap smear or VIA and VILI (Visual Inspection of the cervix with 5% Acetic Acid and Locus Iodine) as recommended by WHO for resource-poor settings. Prostate cancer is detected by checking the PSA (Positive Specific Antigen) level (quantitative). There is a relationship between sexual activity and cervical cancer occurrence. Thus, women who have had sexual intercourse should be screened for cervical cancer and men above 40 should have a PSA screening. Females that are yet to engage in sexual activity can be protected from cervical cancer by receiving the HPV vaccine.
What are the challenges this NGO has faced so far?
The major challenge that we have faced, and I know I speak for other NGOs too, is funding. There is no funding in the area of NCDs in Nigeria especially cancer advocacy and prevention. Donor agencies should make cancer prevention a priority and dedicate funding to help reduce the burden of the disease in Sub-Saharan Africa.