Her story is a real survival story. Betty Akeredolu’s fight against cancer 19 years ago is a struggle she will never forget in her lifetime. The rigour and pains she passed through overwhelmed her belief that a cure would be found in Nigeria sooner than later. She went through long hours of surgery at the University Teaching Hospital, Ibadan and survived the ailment. Being a breast cancer survivor, in 1997, she founded the Breast Cancer Association of Nigeria (BRECAN) which is a leading non-for-profit and non-governmental organization galvanizing action against breast cancer in Nigeria.
BRECAN is increasingly improving the lives of many touched by breast cancer who would have succumbed to the disease due to ignorance and lack of support. She was inspired by the strength gained from her traumatic experience and the indifference surrounding the disease and therefore shared her intimidating,soul lifting and survival story below, According to her: “My experience of shattering loneliness, unavailability of information and group support coupled with ‘tight-lip syndrome’ and indifference surrounding the disease so stirred me that I was inspired to do something that will bring about a positive and lasting change in the attitude of breast cancer victims themselves and the Nigerian society towards breast cancer and sufferers.
When you don’t speak up and talk about your experience, how will others know that one can survive breast cancer?
I had thought I was in good shape health-wise, until one morning in March 1997, while having my bath, my fingers felt something in my left breast. A lump? It couldn’t be! God, it just couldn’t be! This denial was, to say the least, most unrealistic as the lump would eventually turn out to be breast cancer. The trauma I went through can only be imagined. It was most devastating because I neither knew any survivors nor any place to go for emotional support. Emotions were running riot in my head. Fear and confusion took over my entire self.
I couldn’t think! I couldn’t even tell my husband. Confiding in our family doctor was out of it and I was under terrible emotional trauma, all alone. For one week, I kept to myself, not knowing what to do. I must mention that my husband noticed that I was withdrawn and emaciated, but I was quick in reassuring him that I was okay. But was I okay? Far from it. One day during that unforgettable, terrifying week, as luck would have it, I tuned to cable TV and chose UK living and there was Rolanda’s show titled “this programme can save your life” It surely did, for it was about breast cancer survivors. That programme gave me what I needed most at that point in time i.e.: hope that I could be a survivor too. It was the greatest spiritual upliftment I have ever had in my entire life.
By the following week, I summoned courage and went to an Alumna (University of Nigeria), Dr. Ubah at University College Hospital, Ibadan for palpation. She at last confirmed the presence of a lump. Cold reality. Numb shock. What kind of lump? Benign or malignant? It was rather too early to conclude as a biopsy was yet to be carried out. However, it is pertinent to mention that by the time of confirmation of the malignancy, I had gathered myself, shut out emotions and was ready for whatever it would take to make me free of the affliction. My emotional preparedness, I want to believe helped a lot in dealing with the problem. Without delay, on April 29, 1997, I had surgery at the University College Hospital, Ibadan successfully performed by a most caring team of doctors led by Dr. O.O. Akute (FRCS- Fellow Royal College of Surgeons). The best part of the good news was that my cancer was at stage 1 with the axillary nodes free of cancer cells. While in the hospital, I noted the generally high level of fear, apprehension and secrecy among breast cancer patients.
Nobody wanted to talk about it. Majority of the patients due to ignorance and poverty were presenting at the late stages of the disease when little help could be given them. The lucky ones who had successful treatment shied away from discussing their experience. They simply got treated and walked away with sealed lips. Some that I managed to engage in discussions disclosed that their husbands would never let them go public about their experience with breast cancer, apparently fearing stigmatization.what will people say? victim was turned away because she could not afford the hospital bill. In a public hospital? ‘The entire system is sick’, I said to myself and that got me thinking. It is no surprise that my experience of shattering loneliness, unavailability of information and group support coupled with the ‘tight-lip’ syndrome and indifference surrounding the disease so stirred me that I was inspired to do something that would bring about a positive and lasting change in the attitude of breast cancer victims themselves and the Nigerian society toward breast cancer and sufferers.
Today I talk about my experience with breast cancer with relief having sacrificed the anonymity and privacy of my family with the hope that other thousands of silent victims may be encouraged to face up to the new reality in their lives with fortitude. May I share with you one of my favourite quotes. It was I believe by Tony Blair of Britain and says inter alia: I have always had a strong belief in the community. One is not just in this world to do whatever one can for oneself, an individual has obligations to other people and that is the best way to live. The founding of BRECAN and my commitment to make it an enduring organisation that will outlast me is a proof of my connection with the above quote. Furthermore, my experience also made me realise the crucial role of the media in fighting breast cancer. Without watching Rolanda’s show, it could have been a different story, most likely sad. I was lucky I got the inspiration to survive from cable TV. How many other Nigerian women are so privileged? This is why our local media should recognise that they are partners in the fight against breast in Nigeria.
Cancer in general is a word that strikes fear into the heart of everyone. It is a sure killer if allowed to take control. However, with respect to breast cancer, medical advances have brought hope to victims. We are now aware that if breast cancer is detected early, it can be managed for the survivor to lead normal life. Evidence abound that majority of women whose cancers are detected have [significantly increased chances of survival]. In recognition of this fact, BRECAN has been aggressive in the campaign for early detection, promoting Breast Self-Examination (BSE) and providing emotional support to victims and family members. There is urgent need to reach out to all women in this country and I mean all women. Breast cancer respects no social class. It can happen to anyone, both the rich and poor.
It could be your wife, your mother, your sister, your friend, your colleague in the office or some you know (like me). Not minding the general apathy surrounding a disease that is killing thousands of Nigerian women each year, concerned Nigerians at home and abroad must act now. With our collective resolve to fight breast cancer coupled with the financial support of all and sundry, the message of breast cancer awareness and early detection will be carried to millions of women in all nooks and crannies of the country. As we determine to arrest this trend of untimely deaths due to ignorance and poverty, we all stand to reap the dividend.
We may not by ourselves eliminate breast cancer from the face of the earth, but we can end its regime as a life threatening disease making it possible for survivors to lead normal and productive lives. For me, fighting to defeat breast cancer is a life time commitment. What about you?