Ethel Olomu is a stage four breast cancer survivor, having battled the disease for 11 years. Ethel who is now a cancer advocate says while surviving stage four breast cancer is no easy feat, it is possible if patients can ignore shame, refuse to give up and seek help from experts. ANGELA ONWUZOO reports
When Ethel Olomu noticed a lump in one of her breasts in early 2010, little did she know that she was going to battle breast cancer to an advanced stage.
It was no easy battle because getting the needed care for breast cancer is a major challenge in Nigeria, as the nation has an acute shortage of cancer specialists and required equipment.
Ethel, however, said her determination to overcome the disease and not be bothered about shame was crucial to her surviving stage four breast cancer – an uncommon feat.
Sharing her experience with PUNCH HealthWise, Ethel says surviving any type of cancer goes beyond receiving treatment.
According to her, the patient’s attitude to the disease – especially the determination to overcome it, irrespective of what the scan is seeing or saying – is very important.
The Rivers State indigene said, “In early 2010, I was running a scholarship programme at the Lagos Business School. One day, I felt a sharp pain in my breast.
“I told my mother and, being a nurse, she helped me to examine my breast and noticed a lump.
“She told me not to panic, as women sometimes have lumps in their breasts but noted that I should have it checked. At that time, I didn’t know anything about lumps or breast cancer.
“She asked me to go to the hospital and see if it was something they could remove or not.
“I went to both general and teaching hospitals in Port Harcourt and the doctors told me not to worry about it.
“Later, in one of the hospitals, I was booked for surgery. It was an outpatient surgery and they removed the lump. They said the surgery done was lumpectomy.
“They also told me that they would run a laboratory analysis on the removed lump to know what exactly the issue was. At that time, nobody was talking about breast cancer because it wasn’t up for discussion then.”
My breast swelled like a balloon
Ethel, however, said that her ordeal started after the surgery, noting that the surgery was not professionally done.
“Four weeks after the tests, they called me to come and pick up my result. When I got to the facility, they told me that nothing cancerous was found and I was happy.
“But the whole ordeal started nine weeks after the surgery in 2010. One night, I woke up by 3 am to use the restroom and I noticed that my breast was swollen like a balloon.
“I was scared because I had gone for lectures the previous day and didn’t go to bed with any pain or headache.
“I resided in Port Harcourt but was running my programme in Lagos. So, I was alone in the room that night.
“The only thing that I could do that night was to call the doctor that did the surgery. He was surprised that I called him at that late hour.
“I told him my predicament and sent him a picture of the breast. He was surprised and asked me what went wrong.
“He told me not to worry, that in the morning, he would send some drug prescriptions; that after taking the drugs, I would be fine,” she said.
The breast cancer advocate went on, “But the next morning, I couldn’t walk because the breast was too heavy.
“So, I called a friend to help me get the drugs. I took the drugs for three days and there was no improvement.
“Then, I called the doctor and told him I was coming back to Port Harcourt because the surgery had been done there.
After second surgery cancer was still not diagnosed
“When I got to Port Harcourt and the doctor saw me, he told me that I would go for surgery again. After the surgery, he assured me that I would be fine, that some fluid gathered around the breast and that it had been removed,” Ethel narrated.
Despite undergoing the second surgery with all its financial implications, the businesswoman did not fare better and was still not told the exact condition she was treated for.
She recounted, “Weeks after the surgery, nothing changed.
“So, I had to visit another hospital. When I went there in 2010, the doctor told me that I had to do corrective surgery. I told him to go ahead because the size of the breast was killing me.
“When the second doctor was doing the corrective surgery in the theatre, I passed out because I was bleeding profusely.
“They, however, revived me and gave me some medications. Yet, in the end, nothing changed.
“I went to a third doctor. Again, he said he would do corrective surgery. Still, it was all to no avail.
“After all those experiences, I developed a fresh wound around the breast that was not drying up.
“It was bringing out pus non-stop. It was gushing out pus and blood at the same time. And after each surgery, they would take the sample to the laboratory and the sample would come out normal, indicating that the owner had no problem but I was dying gradually,” she said.
Alternative medicine tried but to no avail
The founder of Engraced Life Foundation, a non-governmental organisation focused on breast cancer awareness, said she decided to explore the option of alternative medicine after the three surgeries failed to address her problem, but rather compounded it.
Ethel explained, “And because there was no name attached to my condition, the doctors were just loading me with strong antibiotics.
“After trying the doctors and there was no result, we decided to try alternative medicine. We did that for almost three months and it is an experience that I don’t want to talk about.
“I almost died because apart from the herbs that were given to me take, the peppery substance that they applied on me was always so hot and punishing.
“So, after trying for three months and it didn’t work, my mom said we had to stop.
“All through those periods, I was in critical pain and it was grinding me nonstop.
After third surgery, swollen breast persists
“In one single day, I used more than 20 towels to drain the pus from the wound. I became bedridden. I was not eating and later developed bedsores because I was always lying in one position because of how big the breast was then.
“When the breast didn’t still shrink after all the medications and the consultants we had seen so far, a family doctor suggested that the sample be taken to India.”
Ethel said it was an Indian hospital that eventually diagnosed her condition after eight months.
The University of Port Harcourt alumnus said, “When the sample got to India, weeks after the result came out, the Indian doctors said they were not sure that the person that owned the sample was still alive.
“The doctor that took the sample there told them that I was still alive but in a bad state.
Stage four breast cancer diagnosed
“They said the reason they were asking was that the result showed that the person had the last stage of breast cancer.
“This was around the end of 2010. Yet, for over eight months, I had been going back and forth in Nigeria without anybody telling me exactly what was wrong with me.
“The result showed that cancer had spread all over my body and there was nothing that could be done again.
“They said I should not bother about treatment, whether in India or America. They maintained that nothing could be done again to remedy the situation.”
Doctors said I won’t make it
She recalled, “We tried almost 10 hospitals in India. They all said we should not bother with treatment and that I won’t make it. Their words, “She is already gone.”
“Later, we found a hospital in India that demanded a N10 million deposit to manage my condition, although they were quick to state that it was just for palliative care.
“The hospital gave us hope. But by then, we had exhausted all we had. I had sold my car, everything. That was how we were looking for N10m. I was judged and stigmatised.
“But my family didn’t give up. We were begging for money from everywhere.”
The businesswoman, who was in her 30s then vowed not to give up, despite the result of the scan and what the doctors were saying.
“My pastors were praying for me and every day, we held a vigil in my house because of my condition.
“I had a very strong faith in God that I would make it and I used my thoughts as prayer. It was indeed a battle and it was the first time I heard about breast cancer,” she said.
Ethel, during her ordeal, refused to give in to discouragement.
“So, while the prayers were going on, my friend ran into an old friend and told her about my condition and she came to see me.
“When she came, she said there was no need for me to go to India. She said she knew a Nigerian doctor who is based in the US but also practices in Nigeria.
How God saved my life through a friend
“That was how God used my friend and the doctor to save my life. The doctor has a facility in Abuja and requested to see me.
“So, I was taken to Abuja for treatment and when he saw me, he said they brought almost a dead person to him, saying ‘cancer has ravaged this one’.
“And my breast was still as big as a balloon. The doctor said it was strange for me to still be alive.
“He said he would not give me medication, that if he should give medication, I would die.
“So, he started with a blood transfusion to stabilise me first and I was on it for three weeks.
“After that, he said I was going to do nine sessions of chemotherapy as well as mastectomy and radiotherapy,” she said.
The burden of carrying a heavy breast disappeared from Ethel immediately she began the chemotherapy sessions.
Swollen breast shrinks
She narrated, “By the third chemotherapy, my breast shrank. After the breast shrank, the doctor said I should go for surgery.
“After the surgery, I continued with my chemotherapy. When I completed my chemotherapy, I was to go for radiotherapy.
“But in Nigeria then, there was no radiotherapy machine in the country.
“So, he booked me in Ghana. Before going for the radiotherapy, he asked me to run a test at Mecure to know how many sessions of radiotherapy I would need.
“At Mecure, they ran the test and repeated it about three times.
“The result was sent to my doctor. So, my doctor called to brief me about it.”
The result triggered both excitement and disbelief from the doctor.
A new dawn
Ethel said, “When my doctor saw me, he was excited and said congratulations; indeed, your God answers prayer.
“He said the result that he sent to them and the one that they sent to him did not make sense at all.
“He said the two didn’t match; that was why they were repeating the test at Mecure. He said from the result, my system was like that of a newborn baby. He said there was no stain of cancer in my system again and that there was no need for radiotherapy anymore.
“He said in clear terms that I did not need medication anymore but should be going for regular check-ups.
“To the glory of God, that is how it has been. And for 11 years now, I have not taken any medication.
“People stigmatised me and judged me because I had breast cancer. People avoided me, as if cancer was transmissible. It took me four years to be mentally healed because of the stigma that I suffered.
“My sister works in a general hospital in Port Harcourt and some of the doctors that had treated me earlier saw her and asked her, ‘How was your sister’s burial?’ And she asked, ‘Which burial?’ She told them that her sister was still very much alive and they said it was impossible with what they saw.”
Married despite being a breast cancer survivor
The businesswoman, who got married five years after her battle with breast cancer, told our correspondent that she had dedicated the rest of her life to raising cancer awareness and education, as well as providing support to women and girls fighting breast cancer.
She affirmed, “So, I have decided to raise awareness about cancer. I defeated cancer. It did not defeat me. I am not ashamed of being a cancer survivor. And immediately I started putting my experience out, a lot of women started opening up about their experiences with cancer too.
“Many of them are now able to tackle stigma”.
Cancer patients should love themselves and fight to be alive
Ethel urged people battling cancer to ignore stigma, speak out and get treated.
According to her, cancer is not something that anybody can battle without support.
“Cancer is not a poor man’s sickness. People should beg to be alive if need be. People should speak out and seek help. Cancer patients should not be quiet about their condition. Between 2010 and 2011, I spent over eight million naira,” she said.
Every October marks Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a month dedicated globally to raising awareness about breast cancer.
Breast cancer most commonly diagnosed cancer—WHO
According to the World Health Organisation, breast cancer has overtaken lung cancer as the most common form of the disease, accounting for nearly 12 per cent of new cases each year worldwide.
“Among women, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer and the leading cause of cancer death worldwide.
“Obesity in women is a common risk factor in breast cancer, and is also driving overall cancer numbers,” WHO says.
A Consultant Ocular Oncologist, Dr. AbiaNzelu, said the dearth of cancer management centres is a big challenge to creating awareness and enhancing preventive and treatment measures for the disease.
Nzelu, also Executive Secretary, Mass Medical Mission, said breast cancer is a big problem in Nigeria, noting that its prevalence is now very high.
The consultant oncologist said there is no functional Comprehensive Cancer Centre in the country, where cancer cases could be fully treated.
“The optimal infrastructure needed for cancer treatment in Nigeria is a CCC.
“A CCC is a world-class, stand-alone tertiary health institution, with all its departments focused on cancer care.
“Whilst India has over 200 CCC, Nigeria has none. Therefore, Nigerians, who can afford it, resort to treatment abroad.”
Nzelu, therefore, advised governments, organisations, philanthropists and well-meaning Nigerians to prioritise the management of cancer disease in the country.