LAGOS: On December 17, 2022, about 10 cancer-sick children gathered with their parents inside a waiting room at the oncology unit of the Lagos University Teaching Hospital or LUTH.
It could have been for any of the usual scary medical procedures like surgery, chemotherapy, or radiotherapy. But the gathering here was for a different healing process: to dance and sing away their pain and fears.
They called it a Christmas party, and one session was a singing competition. “On the first day of Christmas…,” a few kids began singing Frederic Austin’s 12 Days of Christmas. Others responded with near touchable joy, “My true love sent to me…, a partridge in a pear tree…two turtle-doves…” and so on.
When they finished, 22-year-old Oluchi Onyekwere, who anchored the competition, congratulated them, repeatedly calling each child warrior.
But Onyekwere’s use of the word “warrior” has come to carry a deeper meaning for the kids. They understand it to mean that they can fight cancer and win.
Onyekwere herself knows intimately how boosting the confidence level of cancer-sick children can drive off fear and quicken their healing process.
She is a childhood cancer survivor who battled ovarian cancer between 2008 and 2012.
“Chemotherapy treatment scrapped all my hair, and I was having issues with my esteem,” she said.
Like the children she now leads in singing and dancing, during her time with cancer, she attended several parties in this waiting room and danced every time. She believes the encouragement and joy she experienced during those parties aided her healing in 2012.
“This party, to me, is a form of therapy that gives them more reason to want to fight cancer. It’s meant to show them the brighter side of life,” she said.
The parties are organised by the Children Living With Cancer Foundation or CLWCF, a local nonprofit.
When Onyekwere’s stomach started bloating due to cancer, her parents initially responded with self-medication. They thought it was something painkillers could handle.
But when her condition worsened in September 2008, they rushed her to LUTH, where she was diagnosed with the deadly disease. From then on, the sickness took a tremendous toll on her family financially and emotionally.
“I had to visit the hospital three days every month, and each visit cost between N800,000 and N1,000,000 ($5,000 – $6,250) for my chemotherapy and radiotherapy sessions, 20 doses of vial and other drugs, tests, scans as well as blood transfusions,” Onyekwere said.
Thankfully, one day at the hospital, another patient told her mother about CLWCF; the patient also gave her mother the group’s phone number.
When she called, a CLWCF staff promised that a team from the nonprofit was going to visit her daughter at the hospital within days. And they did.
From then on, CLWCF sponsored part of Onyekwere’s medical expenses and helped her mother procure chemotherapy drugs from its partners at subsidised rates until she was declared cancer-free.
She is now a certified nurse and a CLWCF volunteer.
“I feel happy to be able to contribute in making these kids cheerful, [considering] the pains and all the things cancer has taken away from them,” she said.
Low survival rate
Cancer is the second highest cause of death globally, the World Health Organisation or WHO says. It attacks the cells of any body organ, resulting in the growth of abnormal cells that multiply and spread rapidly to other body organs, inflicting unbearable pain on its victims.
Lifestyle, environmental and genetic factors, and exposure to certain viruses and high-frequency radiation are the primary causes of cancer.
About 400 000 children globally develop cancer every year, the WHO says. At least 80% of cancer-sick children in developed countries get cured, thanks to access to quality care. But only 20% survive in developing countries like Nigeria due to late detection and limited access to care.
‘He rained abuses’
Nneka Nwobbi is a trained medical doctor. While doing her medical residency training in integrated medicine at the oncology unit of LUTH in 2002, a man rushed in his sick 10-year-old son one day.
After listening to him describe his son’s symptoms, Nwobbi recommended that the boy be screened for leukaemia (cancer of the blood vessel). But that suggestion got his father angry.
“He rained abuses on me for adding leukaemia to his son’s diagnosis table, that he was too young,” Nwobbi told Prime Progress. “But we investigated, and the medical investigations confirmed the boy had leukaemia.”
Reluctantly, the man paid for the first round of chemotherapy and treatment on the boy commenced.
But after the first round of three months, he did not return with the boy for subsequent rounds of treatment. Nwobbi became concerned and decided to find out why.
Soon, she discovered the man could not continue the treatment because he couldn’t afford the cost. Nwobbi also found that several other families had similar problems.
This touched her, and she decided to raise funds from family and friends to cover the 10-year-old boy’s medical bills until he was declared cancer free. But she did not stop; she continued to raise money for other pediatric cancer patients.
Later in 2003, she registered CLWCL to have a structured organisation to rake in philanthropic donations to help more sick kids. CLWCL talks about these children at religious places, classrooms and boardrooms where they can get money or volunteers.
It also partners with local pharmacies and laboratories to provide sick kids with drugs at subsidised rates.
“From our retrievable records, we have supported 300 pediatric cancer patients and their families,” Nwobbi said.
Parties and meetups
Besides medical support, CLWCF organises walkathons and art exhibitions once every quarter to create awareness about childhood cancer and raise funds.
It also organises monthly stage plays, meetups and parties at LUTH’s oncology ward to celebrate the kids, build their confidence, give them gifts and create a fun atmosphere for singing and dancing.
It is a form of therapy against possible depression and to help the kids become more resilient.
A major challenge is potential donors doubting the possibility of childhood cancer.
“Raising funds could be hard because people don’t believe children can have cancer and sometimes think cancer can’t be treated,” Nwobbi said.
And despite its effort, only 54 of the 300 children it has supported have survived. The high death rate is partly due to late detection and delayed treatment.
“The trauma from these deaths affects some volunteers; they stop volunteering when a kid they’ve become attached to dies,” she said. “Awareness and knowledge would make people stop seeking spiritual treatment before they return for medical treatment when it is difficult to salvage the situation.”
Meanwhile, CLWCF is just one of several local organisations supporting poor cancer-sick kids in Nigeria.
Simara Child Cancer Foundation, for example, provides financial assistance and free oncology services to cancer-sick rural-poor children in the oil-producing Niger Delta region, where cancer cases are high due to decades of gas flaring, illegal oil refining and spills that emit toxic particles daily.
This story was produced with the support of Nigeria Health Watch through the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.