We must persist until cancer is made a national health priority, says Ondo First Lady

FIRST LADIES AGAINST CANCER (FLAC) SYMPOSIUM ON 26 OCTOBER @ THE INTERNATIONAL CANCER WEEK, ABUJA NIGERIA, OCTOBER 25-30, 2021

THEME: EXPERIENCE SHARING ON GRASSROOTS ENGAGEMENT AND CANCER ADVOCACY IN NIGERIA.

BRECAN’S 24 YEARS EXPERIENCE IN THE FIGHT AGAINST BREAST CANCER IN NIGERIA

BY
HER EXCELLENCY, BETTY ANYANWU-AKEREDOLU
First Lady of Ondo State and Founder of BRECAN

When I conceived the vision of BRECAN shortly after my ordeal with breast cancer in 1997, I envisaged an organization that will champion the campaign for breast health awareness and galvanize action against breast cancer in Nigeria. BRECAN set out with the mission to eliminate breast cancer as a life threatening disease in Nigeria towards attaining a healthier society. The vision was to ensure that no woman dies needlessly from breast cancer. The Four Pillars of BRECAN; Awareness creation, Patients’ support, Advocacy and Research have been pivotal to achieving these lofty goals.

The organization is grassrooted and has always had a national outlook and reach in mind, so there is no way this can be achieved without having our footprints across the country. We have chapters in Oyo, Lagos, Ondo, Imo, Abuja and just last Saturday Bayelsa was inaugurated. Oyo state chapter is the mother chapter with headquarter in Ibadan. We also have individual members across different states in Nigeria doing their bit within their spaces to create awareness and add impetus to the fight against breast cancer. Thanks to the digital era, we are able to reach out to more people through the online space. Over the past 24 years, we have carried out numerous awareness campaigns, provided financial and psychological support to patients and survivors, we have embarked on several advocacy visits that have yielded and are still yielding results today, and of course, we have supported and carried out research. It is these efforts that have positioned BRECAN to be at the fore front of the fight against breast cancer in Nigeria. We are not resting on our oars.

It is instructive to know our humble beginnings. BRECAN came on board when awareness was very poor at that time and people thought joining BRECAN and participating in her activities would lead to developing breast cancer. As we forged ahead with our campaign activities in those early years, it was literarily as though we were swimming against the tide. We had very low turn-outs, almost no financial support except my husband Aketi, my “numero uno” cheer leader. In addition, there were discouraging comments from people who felt breast cancer shouldn’t be a topic of discussion.
Our first jog 4 life in 2002 had barely 20 participants after months of rigorous planning, but we were determined. Today, the story is different, BRECAN Jog4life has become an annual carnival in the states where our chapters are domiciled attracting thousands of participants each year.

It is important to note that BRECAN is not just growing in size, we are expanding our scope and operations as well. In November 2020, we joined the rest of the world to launch WHO’s project 90-70-90 to end cervical cancer. BRECAN Centres across the country were decorated in TEAL. In my capacity as the First Lady of Ondo state, the Government’s house gate in Alagbaka, Akure, Ondo state was decorated with teal ribbons and decoration materials. Subsequently, we launched the project 21000 in Ondo state in collaboration with Ondo State Ministry of Health which aims at educating 21000 women in the state on breast and cervical cancer. We capitalized on the fact that Ondo State is among the few States in Nigeria with satisfactory hospital attendance rate. Although a majority of the people seeking care are of the female gender who have become exposed to a number of health related information as they visit the hospital, yet information relating to breast or cervical cancer are hardly available to these women. Utilizing an opportunistic awareness model, health workers were trained to easily create breast and cervical cancer awareness to female health seekers who are visiting the hospital for other health related issues like antenatal, malaria etc. The health workers were provided with breast and cervical cancer information cards that they gave to health seekers while creating awareness. Through this initiative more women are being empowered to make informed decisions as it relates to breast and cervical cancer.

This month, BRECAN Oyo state chapter, provided breast and cervical cancer screening to residents of Eruwa, a rural community in Oyo state. Our plan is that BRECAN Centres across the country will be one-stop centres for both breast and cervical cancers. These two cancers, often referred to as twin devils and, are two of the cancers with the highest mortality rates among African women. We are committed to END BOTH!.

I am proud to also inform you that we are not only working with government institutions in our effort to raise cancer awareness, the girl-children in Ondo State and Imo State are now taking the lead as breast cancer advocates. Since 2017, about two thousand young girls who participated in the BEMORE Summer Boot Camp organized by Betty Anyanwu-Akeredolu Foundation, to build the ICT and Solar technology capacity of young girls were also trained to become breast cancer advocates in their respective communities. These girls are now speaking to various groups in their communities leading to increase in breast cancer awareness in remote areas.

Asides awareness, Advocacy for budgetary allocation for cancer control is equally essential and BRECAN has invested a considerable amount of resources in this regard. We are glad to note that our advocacy activities have yielded remarkable results. After series of advocacy visits to the Ondo State House of Assembly, the State legislators in 2018 created a budget line to fund cancer control and kick-start the establishment of a cancer centre in the State. Subsequently, the yearly budget of Ondo State always include fund for cancer control.

Another area BRECAN has focused on is Patient Support. The cost of breast cancer treatment is expensive and usually unaffordable for the poor who constitutes a larger percentage of our population. This generally leads to delayed treatment, bankruptcy and eventually, death. While we continue to advocate for a more robust cancer care fund, BRECAN organizes crowd funding to raise funds to support breast cancer patients’ treatment cost on state basis. That soothing sigh of relief that is glaringly expressed in the faces of the beneficiaries and their families after receiving our support brings immeasurable joy to the heart of every BRECANite and gives us the nudge to do more.

I should add as I roundup, that the relentless work of BRECAN and the resultant impact have caught the attention of respectable individuals and organisations many years before I even became the First Lady of Ondo State. One of such was the recognition of our work by Senator Hillary Clinton in 2005. We are also very proud of the award we received from Harvard University for our work in cancer awareness and advocacy in 2018. University of Heidelberg, Germany also recognized our effort in the fight against cancer in Africa in 2019 while Biden cancer in 2018 recognised our collaboration with Foundation for Wives of Ondo State Officials (FOWOSO) in community mobilization against Breast cancer through Sekem Dance.

Indeed, this journey has been boisterous every step the way, however we remain committed as we push through to eliminate the cancer divide to enable all receive the cancer care they need.

We must all take cognizance of the fact that the field is large but the labourers are few. The problems of misconceptions, late presentation and high mortality rates are still starring us in the face. We have a lot to do. The tempo of creating awareness and educating the public must be raised. We must continue to engage the government and all stakeholders in the political sphere, to make legislations and formulate policies that will help in the fight against cancer. There is urgent need to invest in awareness and screening to arrest the needless deaths due to ignorance and late presentation. We must persist until cancer is made a national health priority.

To everyone, our partners and our friends who have committed to support us, I deeply appreciate you all. Together, we will defeat breast and cervical cancers and build a healthier society.

BRECAN! Giving Hope, Saving Lives!!!

Published by WonderLady

Journalist, Educationist, Writer, Human Rights Advocate

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