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Medical expert draws attention to cancer challenges as world marks IWD

As the world celebrates women on International Women’s Day (IWD), a medical expert has drawn attention to peculiar challenges posed to women by cancer in developing countries including Nigeria.

Abia Nzelu, a medical doctor and executive secretary, Giving Tide International, says IWD provides an opportunity for women and their loved ones to #ChooseToChallenge to cause a change in the present unacceptable situation concerning cancer in Nigeria.

Globally, cancer has dealt with and continues to deal with deadly blows on women. The latest data by the World Health Organisation (WHO) indicates that the global burden of cancer has risen to 19.3 million cases and 10 million cancer deaths in 2020 with more than 50 million people living within five years of a past cancer diagnosis.

The data shows further that, in Nigeria, there were over 120,000 new cancer cases in 2020 with a higher incidence in women (about 73,000 cases), whereas the incidence in men was about 51,000 cases. Nigerian women also have a higher burden of cancer deaths with over 44,000 deaths in 2020 whilst the number of cancer deaths in men was about 34,000.

Nzelu is pained that the disproportionate burden of cancer mortality in Nigeria is large because of the dearth of infrastructure for cancer care in the country, citing India which has over 200 Comprehensive Cancer Centres, most of which are the products of non-governmental/nonprofit endeavour, but Nigeria has none.

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“Nigerians who can afford it, go abroad for treatment, spending over $1billion annually, an amount sufficient to establish 20 Comprehensive Cancer Centre (CCC) in Nigeria every year. Tragically, those who seek care abroad often die from late intervention.
“This financial haemorrhage is unsustainable and the waste of lives is unacceptable. Moreover, the COVID-related global lockdown has shown that medical tourism may not always be available, even if one could afford it,” she said.

According to her, the higher burden of cancer deaths in Nigerian women is the opposite of what obtains globally where men have both a higher cancer incidence and higher cancer mortality. Apart from the direct burden on them as individuals, Nigerian women also bear the brunt when their spouse or children are affected by the disease.

“Too often, unaffected female caregivers end up dying from stress-related illnesses, even before the cancer victim they are caring for. I recall the sad death of an otherwise healthy young mother who succumbed to the stress of seeking funds to care for her 8-year old daughter with eye cancer,” she added.
The medical doctor whose organization, GivingTide International, is currently waging ‘BIG WAR Against Cancer’, stressed that the disproportionate higher cancer deaths in Nigerian women was unacceptable, especially because most of these deaths are preventable.

“Tragically, breast and cervical cancer are together responsible for more than half of cancers in Nigerian women,” she lamented.
Nzelu explained that while cervical cancer is virtually 100 percent preventable and is on the verge of being eliminated in developed countries, prompt diagnosis and effective treatment can cure breast cancer, which now has a survival rate of up to 90 percent in advanced countries.
She noted that the cervix is the door to life for humanity and the breast is the sustainer of early human life which is why “we must #chooseToChallenge this status quo to ensure that the givers of life are not rewarded by preventable suffering and untimely death.”

Nzelu challenged Nigerian women to play a pivotal role in reversing the current trend, by taking a cue from the exemplary efforts made by their fellow women in those parts of the world which have better female cancer statistics.
“For instance, in 1884 when the very first CCC was established in the USA (the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center or MSKCC, New York), a woman, Charlotte Astor, was the prime mover.

“Charlotte convinced her husband, John Astor, to provide the take-off grant for the MSKCC, by drawing his attention to the plight of female cancer patients, who were then being rejected as hopeless cases by the Women’s Hospital, New York, where she was a board member,” she pointed out.

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