Around 100,000 Nigerians could be diagnosed with cancer this year, and 80,000 of them will die, statistics released by the World Health Organisation suggest.

That’s equivalent to 240 people every day or 10 every hour dying from cancer.

Even more alarming is that many go undiagnosed. But the cancer death ratio has prompted calls for early diagnosis.

Detect and diagnose

Detecting and diagnosing cancer greatly improves chances of better outcomes with treatment. But not many think cancers are curable.

Cancer of the cervix is 100% preventable—a vaccine can stave it off—but it kills one Nigerian woman every hour. At least 40 Nigerian women die of breast cancer each day, and 26 men from prostate cancer.

When you live over five years after detecting a cancer, you are cured. That’s the rule of thumb.

“We have a lot of survivors, some over 10 years,” says Gloria Orji, who’s gone six years after her treatment for breast cancer. “It is not a death sentence. That’s what we want to pass on, we want to give people hope, so we don’t make the mistake so many people have made and are gone.”

She is president of Abuja Breast Cancer Support Group, comprising some 32 women who have been treated for or are living with breast cancer.

Listen to your doctor

You probably should get second and third opinions, but whatever you do, listen to your doctor. Your oncologist probably knows better what to do and how to do with.

“A lot of patients are being misled. Sometimes it is mostly from not trusting our medical personnel,” says Orji.

Many start treatment, then withdraw, citing familiar reasons: pocket-draining expense of treating cancer; the havoc cocktails of drugs and chemotherapy wreak on you.

Get treatment

Treatment is tough. “Some people can’t handle their reaction,” says Orji. “Some will blatantly tell you they don’t believe they have cancer, so there is no need going for treatment.”

Treatment is also expensive, very expensive. Health insurance covers up to N5 million on any package—and it is valid only when the cancer is diagnosed only after a cover already exists.

The fallout for many uncovered Nigerians is to having to resort to crowdfunding, says Runcie Chidebe, executive director for Project Pink Blue, under which the breast cancer support group runs.

Unfortunately, many patients die before donations meet targets.

It is serious business. And one that government can’t take for granted. The federal health ministry has been before the National Assembly to defend its budget.

Mohammed Usman, deputy chair of the House of Representatives committee on health care services, calls the budget’s provision for cancer sufficient and a step forward.

But the health budget continues to hit record percentage lows against the Abuja Declaration which calls for health to get at least 15% of national budget.

“When you have these inadequacies, there is no way you can really catch up with most of these diseases afflicting millions of Nigerians,” says Usman.

Early January the presidency assented to the Cancer Bill. “With the assent, we are going to have a cancer treatment programme as an agency similar to that of HIV,” says Usman.

That means remove cancer as a programme of the health ministry, as it is at the moment, and setting up a stand-alone agency [like National Agency for Control of AIDS], with complement of staffing and budget, able to deal with everything cancer.

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