Wife of Ondo State governor, Mrs. Betty-AnyanwuAkeredolu, is a woman of strong focus, compassion and determination. Over the past few years she has assiduously championed the awareness of breast cancer in the country.
Mrs. Betty ChiomaAkeredolu (nee Anyanwu), who hails from Emeabiam in Owerri West Local Government Area of Imo state is a breast cancer survivor: After being diagnosed with breast cancer in October 1997, she underwent treatment and eventually survived the deadly disease. That experience provided her the platform and driving force to begin a Non-profit Organisation in 1997, known as Breast Cancer Association of Nigeria (BRECAN), which focuses mainly on awareness of the disease.
Today BRECAN has made remarkable strides in raising awareness of breast cancer.
According to her, one in eight women has breast cancer “It is something that everybody should be concerned about because it is affecting a very important sector of our society.”
She said: “We need to stem the tide of the disease by creating awareness and sensitising the people to the dangers of the disease. My mission is to ensure that less people die of breast cancer again
While identifying women as the predominant victims of breast cancer in the world, the governor’s wife noted that “anything that affects the health of the women negatively will also affect everyone.”
Akeredolu who noted that government and individuals suffering the ailments are not proactive in the control, prevention and treatment of the disease, further disclosed that she survived the disease 20 years ago.
The BRECAN founder said, “I have been on the rooftop screaming for everyone that cares to know. I am a survivor, I am using my experience to enlist to the heart of everyone that you can survive it. Twenty years and still looking good, it is because of information. I don’t see why any woman should die of breast cancer.”
MrsAkeredolu is a lady who is passionate about everything she does. She is bent on having Ondo state government establish a well-equipped cancer treatment with radiotherapy, mammogram and other facilities, regretting that Government, corporate bodies and organizations in the country are not doing well in the global fight against cancer.
“Breast cancer is ravaging our women; some get it as young as 18 or 21 years. Government must identify breast cancer as a killer disease and should budget henceforth for cancer control, prevention and treatment.”
The Day Her Life Took a New Turn
Today is a good day for Betty Anyanwu-Akeredolu. Her lilting voice is strong and her smile brightens the entire room, which is filled with charts and materials showing breasts of all shapes and sizes, each at a different stage of cancer. On a much darker day 18 years ago, a discovery by her own hand changed her life forever.
Bad days often start out just like normal days: with no warning bells. One day in March of 1997, Anyanwu-Akeredolu made a discovery that made her voice lose its strength and filled her with fear.
“I was having my bath. Then, I felt something like a lump in my left breast.” She was shocked. She had read about cancer in glossy Western magazines during her days as a university student, but she thought that it was a white person’s disease. But when she found the lump, fear enveloped her.
She had four children who needed her. For a week, she lived in denial. “I kept telling myself that it couldn’t be. I kept telling myself that maybe it will disappear.” So at first she kept the lump to herself; she did not tell her husband, and she did not present at a hospital.
Just as her lump was discovered on an ordinary day, so another life-changing occurrence took place on another ordinary day a week later. Anyanwu-Akeredolu came across a show on cable TV featuring breast cancer survivor Carol Baldwin along with her sons. The text scrolling across the screen read: “THIS PROGRAMME CAN SAVE YOUR LIFE.”
“That programme gave me what I needed most in my life – hope that I could be a survivor too. My spirit was lifted.” In addition to lifting her spirit, the programme also sparked a series of decisions that saved her life.
After watching the show, Anyanwu-Akeredolu started to read widely about breast cancer online. Breast cancer wages a war against the cells in a woman’s breasts. She describes it by using the image of a wall made up of small bricks.
“The human cells are the basic building blocks that make up the tissue. There are tissues in the breast and other parts of the body. Cells regenerate; they grow and die so new cells will be formed. So every now and then, some bricks break down and are rebuilt almost immediately. However, there may be this cell, or brick, which refuses to regenerate and just keeps growing and growing, taking up space that belongs to other cells, to other bricks. These cells can spread quickly.”
Armed with an arsenal of information, she visited UCH Ibadan, where the lump in her breast was confirmed to be breast cancer. But it was a newly educated Anyanwu-Akeredolu, not the previous fearful woman in denial, who faced the news.
“Is it benign? Is it malignant? I had gathered myself and asked questions. I was ready for the journey to being a survivor.” Her cancer was stage 1, and her mastectomy and radiotherapy were successful. She did not undergo chemotherapy.
“After the surgery, the next thing is learning to live without your breast.” She says this is one reason why many women delay mastectomy, but that it should not be so: “I don’t remember that I have lost a breast. I want other women to feel that way. It is an appendage: if it is diseased, you cut it off. You do without it.”
BRECAN: Changing Attitudes about Breast Cancer
It was Anyanwu-Akeredolu’s experience at the hospital that made her decide to start an organization. “The atmosphere at the hospital was very depressing. Most of them did not want to talk.”
She knew that it was important to inform Nigerians about the disease, which is why she started her organization, despite the stigma attached. Many people thought she was crazy for exposing her family, warning that her daughters would not find husbands. But he ignored the skeptics and BRECAN was born.
Anyanwu-Akeredolu’s conviction is evident in her voice when she talks about the reason she started BRECAN: “Breast cancer is not a death statement. I wanted to use my experience to help others.”
And helping others is exactly what she has done since the organization began. BRECAN inspires action against breast cancer through patient support, public education and advocacy. These goals are accomplished through health talks, health walks, discussion sessions and speaking engagements, among other measures.
On February 4, 2015, BRECAN partnered with an Old Boys Students organization to institute an annual lecture series in memory of their classmate, OmolaraJolaoso, who died of breast cancer. The theme of the first series is “Breast Cancer and Lifestyle.”
“Jolaoso is gone but breast cancer is still here. We aim to raise the level of awareness,” says Anyanwu-Akeredolu. A week later, she reached out to young female students, talking with them about the World Cancer Day theme for 2015: Not Beyond Us.
BRECAN’s programmes are for everyone, but they are especially focused on the grassroots level, such as market women and neigbourhood women’s groups who do not readily have access to such information.
Key among BRECAN’s activities are its counselling sessions for individuals and groups. BRECAN also created Hope Lodge, which provides accommodations for breast cancer outpatients and their families traveling to University College Hospital in Ibadan for checkups. And BRECAN organizes a monthly programmecalled “Breakfast Aerobics” to promote a healthy lifestyle through a combination of exercise and a balanced diet.
“We try to change people’s attitude about the disease. With information, you do not know who you will reach,” says Anyanwu-Akeredolu. A doctor once told her that one of her patients decided to go through with a mastectomy after she heard her on radio.
“I receive at least three calls daily about breast cancer,” she says, adding that it is difficult to put a figure on the number of women she has reached with BRECAN, there have been so many.
Cancer: Nigeria’s Burden
The statistics for breast cancer in Nigeria are daunting. According to the World Health Organization, over 2 million Nigerians (the majority of them women) have died from cancer, and breast cancer is the leading cancer scourge affecting humans. It is like a heavy burden weighing the country down – a burden to which the country is apparently oblivious.
Anyanwu-Akeredolu says that breast cancer wages a war against the very country, because the woman is the backbone of every Nigerian family. “What do you have when the backbone is gone, especially after spending so much money to keep it in place?” she wonders, and in the same breath repeats that it does not have to be this way.
Though there are 11 cancer registries in the country where information on cancer and tumor diseases are systemically collated, Nigeria does not have a national cancer policy. Radiotherapy is not generally available in public health institutions; there are currently nine radiotherapy centres and 30 oncologists. At the public hospitals, treatment is available largely at the tertiary level.
Anyanwu-Akeredolu believes Nigeria needs to do more. “Cancer education should be mass education. This is not what one individual or organization can do, the government has to step in,” she says, noting that the only way is to nip the scourge in the bud, because with more information, most patients will present earlier.
Information alone may not be enough, however. Anyanwu-Akeredolu says that empowerment is key, and that a woman must be able to do the right thing with the information she has.
“Treat it as a medical issue. Women should take charge of their breast health. You need to accept that this disease can affect you; that you are not covered with anything. Every woman is at risk. The top on the list of risk factors for breast cancer is being a woman – nobody is spared. So do the simple thing: check your breasts regularly. If you notice any unusual thing, go to the hospital. Women are surviving it for sure, in great numbers, and we are working towards ending it. It is a disease that I believe could be ended.”
And beyond information and empowerment, Nigerians should have access to free medical care. The treatment course for cancer is too expensive for the average Nigerian, which Anyanwu-Akeredolu lists as another reason why many just accept their diagnosis as a death sentence.
“No matter how poor the woman is, if she knows that the treatment is free, she will likely go for treatment at the hospital,” Anyanwu-Akeredolu says. Yet this is not the case in most Nigerian hospitals, where mammograms and clinical breast exams are not even available at the Public Health Centres. It is also crucial to equip hospitals with the needed facilities and properly skilled personnel.
BRECAN is part of the National Breast Cancer Coalition, a union of breast cancer organisations seeking to bring an end to the disease by 2020. Although 2020 is just five short years away and Nigeria is very far from this goal, Anyanwu-Akeredolu is optimistic: “If we try, we can. If we sit down to think about these issues, if we take actionable steps, if we dream and set goals to achieve those dreams, we can.”
Betty Anyanwu-Akeredolu has conquered her cancer for 18 years, and she says that her story of survival is a testimony that if Nigeria wants to conquer breast cancer, she can. “As survivors of breast cancer, we look at ourselves – if we can live this long, it is possible that we can find an answer,” she says, smiling.
Betty’s Survival Tips:
• Know your breasts.
• Report any strange discoveries to the hospital.
• Read widely about treatment options.
• Choose your preferred option quickly.
• Live life to the fullest.
Recently, Betty Anyanwu-Akeredolu has gone into partnership with Nigeria Women Techsters (NWT) and Microsoft to empower about 7,200 women in Information Communication and Technology (ICT) in the next three years.
Speaking at the maiden press conference held at the Banquet Hall of the Government House, Akure, the wife Governor thanked the team for finding her worthy to be a part of the initiative while expressing optimism that the project will fly and ultimately be utilized to solve societal problem.
“Given what has happened within the last one month, I can confidently say that we are on the path to bridging the gender gap between men and women in ICT world. Given our experience with two initiatives that we had during this summer, I am excited about the possibility which is endless.
“We are set to nurture new Nigerian young women in the technology industry. The kind of feedback we got from the over 100 girls that participated in our ICT programme really should make everyone that came close to that training programme very excited. I am looking at a situation where we not only bridging the gender gap but rather train these women to use ICT to solve our social problems”, she added.
ArabinrinAkeredolu further charged that Microsoft to continue to provide support.
“It is not enough that these young women become ‘techy’ enough but I am expecting that they should be able to use their skills to solve social problem. I believe that with ICT, we can leap-frog and make it possible for marginalized communities to get education through. We can have virtual classrooms”, she said.
A voice to the physically challenged while pushing for the child Rights Act in the country, Mrs. Akeredolu owns fish farm known as Aquatek Farms Ventures, in Ibadan, Oyo state.
She bagged a master’s degree in Fisheries from the University of Philippines after graduating from University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN) in Zoology.
MrsAkeredolu does not compromise her role as a mother and grandmother.
By all accounts an accomplished woman, finding fulfilment in impacting on humanity.