Founder of the Breast Cancer Association of Nigeria (BRECAN) and wife of Mr Rotimi Akeredolu, the All Progressives Congress (APC) candidate for the forthcoming Ondo State governorship election, Mrs Betty Anyanwu-Akeredolu, speaks with MOSES ALAO on breast cancer awareness in the country, her role in her husband’s aspiration and why Ondo State women should support her husband.
You established the Breast Cancer Association of Nigeria (BRECAN) 20 years ago, how would you say the journey has been in terms of successes and challenges?
The road has been rough but we keep trudging on, because the association was founded on experience of breast cancer. It was not a matter of someone waking up and being in want of what to do, decide to establish a nongovernmental organisation or an association. Something moved me to found me to establish BRECAN; the experience of being diagnosed of breast cancer was not a cup of tea. Every survivor will tell you that it was you encountering your death and if you can imagine what that experience would be 20 years ago, you will agree with me that it frightening and traumatic. But when I pulled through, I felt that I should not keep quiet about it, because when I got to the University College Hospital (UCH), Ibadan back then, there were also many women who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. But I, in particular, never heard much about breast cancer. Most of the information I got was through cable TV then or the little I read in the magazines while in university in the 1970s and we all thought it was a white woman’s disease. I could never have imagined that it could happen to me.
So, I felt that my opening up to the world would be my contribution through which people can be aware that one can survive breast cancer. Even if I didn’t anything, there mere fact that someone can come in here and see me alive and well would be lift the spirits of those diagnosed and it will also go a long way in dispelling the misconception that breast cancer is a death sentence. Oh yes, I can say that breast cancer is not a death sentence because I am here.
There is this stereotype that cancer is a disease of the rich and so there has always been an over-concentration of cancer campaigns in the city centres. How have you been able to reach out to rural women, where the discovery of lumps in the breast might be termed as the handiwork of witches and spiritual forces?
That stereotype borders on ignorance; I can tell you that breast cancer is a leveler. It affects anyone, be you rich, poor, educate or illiterate. When I got to the UCH, I saw that women affected by breast cancer were women from all walks of life; it is when people are not exposed to information that they say all sorts of thing. When I said initially that the road has been rough, you can see what I was trying to say. The readiness of our people to even embrace cancer advocacy has been quite tough, because they are still with the misconceptions that border on cultural milieu and belief system. If you grew up in an environment where they think that diseases can be caused by spiritual attacks, juju and all that, it takes a lot of time and energy to convince people and that is why the entry point of BRECAN is to fight cancer through awareness. This is because if you are not successful in dispelling all those misconceptions, there is no way a woman will readily present herself to the hospital. So, when you talk about rural women, it is not only rural women who have misconceptions; even those in the cities as well. It has been quite tough but we are gradually disseminating the information and achieving the set targets.
What is the level of support from governments in all these, because there is this tendency with governments in the country to wait until a disease gets to the epidemic level before they take action?
We are doing our best but the support that we expect to really to every woman in this nation has not been there. You can say it again that our governments wait for things to get out of hands before taking action. First, has government even seen breast cancer as a threat yet? No.
Is it a threat that it should be worried about?
It is. It is a threat. Unfortunately, the way our people reason, they wait until things get out of hands before acting, because they feel that they have other major ailments to deal with; malaria, maternal health, infant mortality and so on but these days, the incidence non communicable diseases is also rising and we now hear of notable Nigerians who had died of cancer. If you can hear of one or two names that died of cancer, you can imagine the number of unknown Nigerians and these were people who had the financial capacities to access any medical attention in any part of the world and yet they died. It boils down to the failure of government to do things at the right time and even those who have passed on, you would have expected them to do the right things at the right times, so we say early detection saves life. But the cultural milieu I mentioned earlier is a challenge. This is one of the reasons our people report cancer signs late to hospitals and if we are able to educate the public that cancers, especially the breast cancer that I am versed with, starts as a painless lump or any sign that could painless and one would disregard it and move on. But if we are able to bring up that information that breast cancer progresses with time and more often than not, it is a painless lump or a discharge from the nipples that is totally painless.
The government has not done much, unfortunately, because we don’t need to wait till a disease becomes an epidemic to act and that is why organisations keep talking about it, if only they will listen. But slash and burn approach has always been the lot of our government and our system; it is not just about breast cancer; government likes fire brigade approach. Sometimes, screening is done and lumps are detected in women’s breasts but nothing is done afterwards. If we know the number of women losing their lives due to breast cancer, it is a shame to government that it has not been able to make breast cancer a health priority. Sometimes, you can have a friendly government and I will give a shout out to Governor Abiola Ajimobi’s administration, it has been supportive of our quest.
In a few months, your husband could be the governor of Ondo State. What plans do you have for the women in Ondo State regarding health care?
Ondo State women can be assured that I have a lot on the table for them; before you can say Jack Robinson, things will begin to move for them positively. I belong to the NGO community and one thing you cannot doubt about anyone from that community is that the person cares, no matter the level. We can say there are those that care, care more or care most but the common denominator is that the person cares and has human feelings, because it is not easy to run an NGO or charity organisation in this country, where people hardly support. Immediately people hear NGO, they feel you are getting dollars; so for them to support with a little, they don’t, because they feel you are already living off that NGO, which is very wrong. So, doing this for 20 years shows that I care about people and that is one thing I can assure the people of Ondo State; that we will care. Already, I am planning a lot and women’s health, especially in the areas of breast and cervical cancers will be a priority for me. But my programmes will go beyond that; everything that can advance the cause of womanhood will be taken care of, because before now, I belong to the school of thought that believes that women can contribute to the socioeconomic developments of their countries once they are equipped with the knowledge and tools.
President Muhammadu Buhari recently said his wife belonged to his kitchen, his living room and the other room and this has been trailed by criticisms. As a woman who been at the forefront of advocacy programmes for women, if your husband becomes governor, where will you belong and have you even been on field with him?
Every marriage knows how it handles issues and we are all different, so regarding the president’s statement, the Presidency has said it was a joke; let us leave it that way. Coming to my husband, for me to be involved in what I am doing, you can see that he believes that a woman is capable. The way your husband handles the things that you do will tell you his stance when it comes to women advancement and emancipation. Obviously, my husband believes that I am capable and he has the same regard for all women.
Talking about being with him on the field, you know this is our second missionary journey, so to say, and we combed Ondo State in 2012, so it is a very familiar terrain for me. Even if I don’t come out shouting from the roof tops, Ondo women should be assured that I will be doing the pillow talks for them; I will work for their best interest, so they should not entertain any fear. Ondo women will not be left out when Akeredolu forms the next government.