Nigerians and Cancer
God forbid, but chances are that greater than 1in 10 Nigerians reading this article will have cancer in their life time and over 80% of those will die from it. We do not have competent epidemiological data, but we do not need data to validate what you and I can feel – that rate of cancer has skyrocketed in Nigeria across all age groups and with our poor access to quality health care, Nigerians are no match for cancer.
Practically every unmarried young woman over 30 has fibroid insidiously growing in the linings of their uterus. Breast cancer has become the new scourge of contemporary Nigerian women. Prostrate cancer is mowing down middle aged Nigerian men. Brain, liver, pancreatic, lung, colon, blood - just name it, cancers are now all over the place.
Health Commissioners for Mouth
Chances are that your State’s Commissioner for Health has degrees from here to Timbuktu and probably is also a Fellow of InterGalactic College of Medicine but has no clue how to craft a healthcare policy for cancer prevention and treatment. While they are busy padding their bank accounts and feathering their retirement nests, the rest of us are having to deal with cancer with zero help or guidance from the Health Ministries.
Exploitation of Cancer Patients
As if Cancer diagnosis is not a burden in and of itself, many unscrupulous doctors are taking advantage of ignorant, life-loving, Nigerians. A case in point: Two years ago, Chinwe, patient living at Awka complained of severe headache. She was rushed to a Teaching Hospital which could not resolve the headache. Then she was taken to an MRI clinic in Port Harcourt where imaging studies were done. Imaging studies were emailed overseas because the radiologist was out on vacation. US Radiologist confirmed that patient had glioma – a typically fatal type of brain cancer. A private clinic in Enugu insisted that brain biopsy and surgery will cure Chinwe for 1.1 Million Naira. Chinwe’s husband paid and hoped for the best against advice from a US oncologist to save his money. Pathological studies after biopsy confirmed glioma. The doctor later referred Chinwe to National Radiotherapy Center at Abuja to “complete treatment” after his surgery. The Enugu based doctor refused to listen to us about poor prognosis and insisted on his money in full before patient could leave. He said that we were playing God and that he practices with God and that was not the first time he treated glioma successfully and he does it by debulking and radiotherapy. He refused to talk to a US Oncologist. (This is the type of Cancer that killed Edward Kennedy). At Abuja Radiological Center, the machines were broken. Chinwe considered South Africa or Ghana where they had functional equipment. Chinwe finally went to Ghana for six weeks and paid twenty thousand dollars. Chinwe still did not feel better when treatment was done. Goddy, her husband was desperate for cure. So were Chinwe’s five young kids. Goddy sold off many of his landed properties and was prepared to fly his wife to India. He did not want to hear about poor prognosis. Upon coming back from Nigeria, Goddy allowed prayer warriors stepped in. A prayer outfit in Abeokuta asked for One thousand dollars by Credit Card – all online before letting Chinwe into their miracle hall. Goddy paid. Prayer warrior could not deliver. Chinwe later died within a couple of months.
This is pretty much the story of helpless Nigerians and cancer.
What is Cancer?
In lay man’s terms, think of cancer as a cell that will not stop dividing. As the mass of cancerous cells grow, they also grow new blood vessels to keep feeding the growing mass.
With those new blood vessels, cancerous cells can migrate to other parts of the body and start growing there too. Eventually the body is overwhelmed and the patient dies.
What Causes Cancer?
The list is endless but anything that can cause cancer is called a carcinogen. If you can control the carcinogens in your environment, in your stomach and intestines, and in your body, you have a chance of not getting cancer. But you sure can’t. Cell cycle regulation and cell differentiation is such a complex series of events that we do not have a complete understanding of the bewildering array of mechanisms that keep things in check. Every second in the body, millions of chemical reactions are taking place that can potentially cause a cell to literally behave differently. For instance, what they call free radicals are continually generated in the body and those free radicals can potentially transform any one of the many regulatory points needed to keep cells in check. To make things more daunting, all it takes is one wacky cell out of the well over fifty trillion cells in the human body to develop cancer. Fortunately for us, when cells change and are determined to be aberrant by the body, the body also has mechanisms to kill those aberrant cells.
Without going too deep into the science, the point is that the body is always battling to keep cancer cells from forming, and once formed, to kill them. Unfortunately, when we eat food containing carcinogens and we live in a world where we are all literally submerged in all sorts of short and super-short wavelength radiations coming from lasers, radio, broadcast, natural sources, we make it very difficult for the body to cope with its battle against cancer cells. With all the carcinogens the body has to deal with, and a person’s genetic make up contributing as well, it is becoming easier and easier to lose the battle against cancer.
The Nigerian Case
As you can imagine, when people have altered and poor nutritional status, sooner or later, they will lose the battle against cancer. One part of your body that does the heavy lifting of removing carcinogens that enter the body is the liver. If the liver is impaired by alcohol, chronic viral infections, infections or poor nutrition, your body can easily lose the fight against cancer.
Many Nigerians drink milk and eat pizza and all sorts of dairy products without regards to how traces of growth hormones found in those food substances can stimulate the growth of aberrant cells. Unfortunately, many ignorant Nigerians whose diets have been completely westernized consider that evidence of good living not knowing that they may be opening the road for cancer cells.
Meanwhile, same ignorant Nigerians have also avoided local vegetables, many of which contain anti-cancer compounds. They now eat Western vegetables drowned in a mind boggling amount of salad cream.
Mind you, those who eat Western foods are mainly the rich folks who can afford one million Naira for brain biopsy. The vast majority of Nigerians are malnourished and their poor nutritional status is no match for the many carcinogens that their bodies now have to contend with.
Basic Nutritional Education
Rich or poor, basic nutritional education is lacking in Nigeria and that is where the Health Ministries must be faulted. An immune system that is at the top of its game is required in today’s carcinogen-charged world. Many folks, including 99% of people reading this article have no idea what to eat to keep their immune system functioning at an optimal level. Nor do they know that sugars or stress can all affect one’s immune system. A weakened immune system means that the body becomes more susceptible to infections, the liver functions at a suboptimal level, and the body is less able to sweep and clean out transformed cells that can cause cancer.
Altered and poor nutritional status, I am firmly convinced, is the reason why the rate of cancer has skyrocketed in developing countries, including Nigeria.
If Prevention Fails, Early Detection is Your Best Chance
Your average Nigerian has no clue how to monitor their bodies for signs of any mass. Nor does he have a program of regular visits to screen his internal organs for cancer. A Professor of Urology at one of the Teaching Hospitals in Nigeria could not tell me where a patient can go for colonoscopy in Nigeria. Patient later went to India. Another Patient related to me had to have orchiectomy in the United States as a result of infection contacted in Nigeria from routine prostate biopsy. Nigeria as a nation does not even have any competent Cancer Centers where people can receive Chemotherapy and Radiotherapy.
It really just means that once preventive measures or lack thereof fail in Nigeria, cancer becomes a virtual death sentence.
Knowing all that, you would think that the Ministries will embark on a National Campaign to teach people what to do to avoid carcinogens and what to eat to keep their bodies in prime metabolic shape. The poor old man who is looking for beef and chicken stew to eat with his white rice needs to be told that he is better off with bitter leaf soup and small garri –with no meat if he can’t afford it. The poor old woman dipping bleached white bread in whole milk with Ovaltine and sugar has no clue that that whole milk containing small traces of hormones can lead to cancer. The little boy celebrating his birthday at Mr. Biggs with imported chicken parts made from six-week old broilers grown with hormones may not know that the hormone soaked broilers is going to literally kill him. Your average Nigerian in Diaspora is too busy running after dollars not knowing that stress is also an immune system depressant. Nor does he know what nutritional supplements he needs to take to equip his body with a high dose of anti-oxidants to help fight free radicals that can transform normal cells into cancer cells. Nor does he give a second thought to ordering Pizza and Happy Meal at McDonalds with milk shakes and super sized fat soaked French fries. Your average hard working Nurse-wife in America gives no thought to feeding her kids with packaged pre-cooked foods containing deadly carcinogens.
One can go on and on, but one must emphasize that our disappointed with our Doctors, particularly those in public Offices, are not doing enough to help Nigerians cope in this new world where each and every one of us appears to be totally submerged in an environmental casket of carcinogens. Unfortunately, while the developed countries are pumping out nutritional supplements, doing routine screening, educating their citizens, and doing their best to fight cancer when diagnosed, we in Nigeria are totally clueless and so totally helpless that cancer is becoming the commonest cause of death in our country.
Chris Aniedobe is a graduate of Biochemistry from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and Biotechnology (with Distinction) from the Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine, London.
This article is dedicated to the memory of Eddy Ukegbu, former President of Imo State Congress, USA, and to another friend of mine and in-law who is battling cancer right now in New Jersey. Unfortunately, his cancer has spread and I feel so sad knowing that the world is about to lose one of its finest gentleman.