Having lost both parents to cancer, traumatised and devastated, Chief Executive Officer and Founder, Care Organisation Public Enlightenment, Mrs Ebunola Anozie, knew it was high time she began to educate people on the danger of breast cancer, the need for regular check-ups and early detection. That was exactly what she did as she began in 1995 to cater to breast cancer patients.
In this interview with MARY NNAH, she revealed that even with so many interventions by her organisation to save lives of people suffering breast cancer especially, patients are still being denied by hospitals in Nigeria, the care and attention they require, especially in this era of COVID-19, when most of them are turned back from the hospitals
You started COPE like 25 years ago when cancer cases weren’t as rampant as they are today, what particularly informed your decision to go into such field?
I used to work in the banking sector. I lost my mother to cancer in 1970. She was 35 when she died. She died in England but was flown back here. We thought we had heard the last of it until my father also had cancer of the stomach and we tried as much as possible to help out but we found out that the treatment here was nothing to write home about. So, we had to fly him to England for more treatment and the result we got from the doctors over there, really, I would say was a disgrace on the part of the medical treatment here. In fact they were so disgusted with what they saw and started afresh to treat him. For years he lived but when he came back he became very aggressive and he died in 1995. So, the trauma was very much. It was huge. It was very traumatic for the entire family and being the last of five children and my father’s pet I couldn’t just take it.
So, while on vacation in the United States that was when I got to know about breast cancer. I had no idea that people had breast cancer. So I did a lot of investigations in America, I went to some organisations and they were willing to help me out. I came back and started COPE just on a casual basis informing people here and there that breast cancer is dangerous and that you are supposed to check your breasts. I just started on a small level but lot of people started coming and they said I needed to be present here all the time so that they can see me each time they come and that was how I left the financial sector for COPE.
And when I started, I was able to on my own, by the grace of the Almighty God, sponsor two women for breast cancer surgery and we have been able to do quite a lot. That was how I started the organisation; it wasn’t as if I really intended to stay here but situation had to force me to stay and help people. That has been the story of COPE and we probably wouldn’t have been able to stand for this long if not for the support we have got so far. We have vibrant board of trustees who are very active. I am just the face. It is not a matter of owning COPE; I run COPE with the support of a formidable board of trustees. We must also thank the organisations that have been very supportive and I must mention again, Variant Advisory. They have been 100 per cent behind us.
The set of people we cater to are very brave women – the Breast Cancer Support Group members. They are all breast cancer survivors. Every third Thursday of the month is when the support group members meet while we do our screening on every third Saturday of the month for people who want to come and have their breasts screened with the ultra-sound machine at our centre.
When you talk about Breast Cancer Support Group, what exactly do you mean?
Breast Cancer Support Group is made up of women who have survived breast cancer. The aim is for them to help those who have breast cancer. It is to give them new lease of life; to reassure them and help them regain their self-confidence and be able to gain strength from one another. They term themselves as “One Nation”. They are to show those battling with breast cancer that there is life after breast cancer once it is detected earlier. Some of them are about 17 years gone and they are still alive today. So, for the new ones who come, they gain strength as well from those that they see that have survived it and they are hopeful. So, they get a lot of information as we invite a lot of resource person to come and talk to them like our chairman, Emeritus professor Osato Giwa-Osagie, a consultant with Lagos University Teaching Hospital in Obstetrician and Gynaecology and Emeritus professor University of Lagos.
Most importantly, yearly, we try as much as possible to give them financial supports. We give cheques to those that need the assistance because it is not all of them that actually need these assistances but we give to those who don’t have the money to continue with their treatments. We are able to do this through Variant Advisory, a financial consulting firm that provides a wide range of advisory services to corporate businesses in all major industrial sectors. They help us yearly and all those gift items we give to the women are supplied by Variant Advisory as well. The firm has been very supportive of our cause over the years. We also work with organisations that cater for their clients or member of staff who have cancer, so they pay us a million naira for example, and we provide them with cards worth that amount, which they give to their clients and staff to enable them access to our centre for screening. So when they bring those cards, the name of the organisation is written on it so that we know where the card is coming from and we know the number of people coming from a particular organisation and with this they don’t to pay for the N3000 charged for the screening. We charge that cheap for ultrasound because we are not a profit making organisation and we do that also to encourage women to detect breast cancer early before it is too late. So when they come, the doctors and nurses are here and they have their breast examined clinically by the nurse and then the doctor will then check with the machine.
You have been doing this for 25 years. What has been the impact like?
The impact has been massive. The most important thing is that we have been able to save many lives of people who didn’t know they had lumps in their breasts and we have been able to help them out. We have been able to give financial support to quite a lot of people. And the fact that we are doing this screening at a rock-bottom price of N3000 is really huge. You can’t get ultrasound scan and clinical breasts examination for that low elsewhere. This is our own way of encouraging women to get their breasts examined so that if there is anything there, you know early enough because early detection is key, once you detect it early and go for treatment early, your life would be okay and the breasts can also be saved. It is not all those who have breasts cancer that have one of their breasts cut off. Some people who have had breasts cancer have their two breasts intact because they detected it early and so it didn’t spread to the extent where they would have both or one of their breasts removed. Most of the time, we give out a lot of materials from organisations abroad. We give out special bras and breasts prostheses and all that. But now we have run out of breasts prostheses at the moment. These are things you cannot buy in the markets, so we are soliciting for organisations that can also help to become partners with us.
You would agree with me that even with the rock-bottom price you do the ultrasound screening at COPE, a lot of women still don’t take advantage of it probably due to lack of awareness. So what have you been doing to get information to the grassroots?
We use social media a lot to encourage women to come for screening; we use radio jingles to make sure that we get the message out there. Most importantly, you see, counselling is the key. We do counselling here every Friday where women talk to me one on one with the issues they are having; the fact that we have been able to give out those financial assistance, these are the things they come to talk to me about. And we make sure they have partners that they can relate with and we keep constantly in touch with making sure that they are comfortable. Then every year, we take them to the Spar where each of them gets a massage. Apart from pampering them, the massage is to release some of the tension they might have had when they did the surgery; just to relief and make them more flexible. We invite dieticians, oncologists, motivational speakers and experts that lecture them on exercise. We do aromatherapy, yoga and quite a lot of things just to make sure that they feel sense of belonging and special even though they are more like any other person. So, breast cancer, I keep saying, is not a death sentence and it is not something that people should now stigmatise.
Apart the screening, does COPE do surgeries?
No, we don’t do surgery. COPE is not a hospital rather, it is a nongovernmental organisation. We do everything that needs to be done and then leave the rest for the doctors to do. We can inform and educate because no doctor is going to sit down and tell them all that we tell them. We show them movies of how some people have been able to survive and then tell them what they supposed to do. We have audio-visual that we show to let them to know what they are supposed to do in case of any challenge that they go through. So basically, the support group gives them a sense of reassurance.
Like you said earlier, it is not all the women you assist financially. What determines who you give financial assistance to?
Yes, not all of them need financial assistance and there are times we tell you, okay, go ahead and do whatever you can to get money and whatever it is, we would help you out when we have it. We don’t have the resources; it is someone or organisations that give the money and when they do not have, so we have to wait till when they have. So, it is a matter of you having the confidence that at least your treatment will be taken care of and you would have that ease and not worry about the expenses.
You came from the financial sector to the medical field. How were you able to acquire the skills to function in the medical filed?
When you want to something successfully, you do it with all your heart. I was always going for conferences; I read books and leaflets that would help cancer survivors, patients and women to cope. I make sure that I quip myself with the necessary tools whenever the occasion arises for that. I make sure I interact with people outside the country as well and thanks to some organisations that have been very supportive.
The most important thing about this whole thing is that we should learn that women should support women and not feeling that you are better than someone else. Anybody can have a challenge any time. So, it’s more of hold my hands and let me hold yours.
However, there are times we lose some of them because some of them come when it is too late. So it has not been bed of roses, there are times we have our ups and downs. And could be very sad when you have that; coming from a background where I have seen it first hand, I know how devastating it could be.