How high cost of cancer treatment has badly affected patients in Nigeria

Gloria Onumegu, a Breast cancer patient
Gloria Onumegu, a Breast cancer patient

Gloria Onumegu’s life was the definition of an almost perfect one. Business was booming fast for her, which meant lots of money.

Her mother and siblings, all of whom she is responsible for as the first child, had almost no reason to worry as she made sure they never lacked anything.

To crown it all, the 35-year-old lady had a promising relationship that was on its way to the aisle.

Sadly, something happened along the line and she lost everything she had.

Ms Onumegu was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017.

Cancer

Cancer is one of the leading causes of deaths worldwide as new cases and deaths from the disease keep rising.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) earlier said an estimated 116,000 new cases of cancer and 41,000 cancer-related deaths were recorded in Nigeria in 2018.

It also said if the current trends are maintained, the cancer burden in Africa is projected to double from 1,055,172 new cancer cases in 2018 to 2,123,245 by 2040.

According to the health organisation, breast cancer is the most frequent variant among women, impacting 2.1 million women each year, and also causes the greatest number of cancer-related deaths among women.

In 2018, it is estimated that 627,000 women died from breast cancer globally.

Early diagnosis

Though, she reported to the hospital early, this did not save Gloria from losing one of her breasts via Mastectomy.

She said doctors embarked on a nationwide strike at the time she was meant to commence treatment.

Unfortunately, the strike lasted for over two months which meant the cancer cell had more time to spread.

“I went to the Gwarimpa general hospital when I started feeling sharp pain and hotness on my breast. I was given some antibiotics to use for a while but no improvement.

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“So I went for a scan which also came out clean. After about three months, I went back for another scan and at this time, they (doctors) saw ‘something’.

“So I was referred to National hospital for further treatment, unfortunately the doctors were on strike which ran into months,” she said.

After waiting for months, she was advised to go to Wuse general hospital where doctors were still on ground.

“At this point, the doctor said they had to cut the breast and I should thank God I came early,” she said. “I couldn’t bear the news so I ran away, until July before I decided to go back to the hospital and it was done.”

Cost of cancer treatment, huge burden

Left with only one breast, Gloria said she thought “I’m finally free and can move on with life”.

Unfortunately, this is only the beginning of multiple treatments to come.

She has to undergo radiotherapy and chemotherapy, which are the commonest medical solutions to cancer.

“After the surgery, I started another phase of life entirely. I was told I have to undergo chemotherapy treatment and radiotherapy and it will last for about eight months. So I started borrowing money from people, begging money here and there because the cost is too high.

“I was booked for eight courses of chemotherapy and through the help of God and man, I started the first chemo and did up to four sessions before my doctor told me to stop and start radiotherapy.

“I completed radiotherapy and the doctor advised I go back for three sessions of chemotherapy but I can no longer afford it,” she said.

Samuel, Khadijat

Samuel Onalo, a patient with skin cancer, explained the huge bill he has to cough out to treat cancer.

“For skin cancer, one has to pay N95,000 for each session of chemotherapy and N600,000 for all sessions of radiotherapy.

“There are other payments of about N45,000, 70,000 along the line,” he said.

Khadijat Banwo, a breast cancer survivor, also told this reporter how the cost of treatment is a great burden to patients.

“Cancer treatment in Nigeria is a huge burden for the patient, caregivers, families and loved ones, as the health insurance scheme does not take care of cancer treatment.

“The cost implications of treating cancer is insurmountable,” she said.

Field work

An investigation carried out by PREMIUM TIMES revealed that the cost of treating cancer in the country is indeed huge for average Nigerians.

In an effort to ascertain the amount needed to fully treat cancer, the reporter visited the radiotherapy unit of the National hospital, Abuja.

For a cancer patient to go through the complete sessions of radiotherapy, about N600,000 is needed.

A staffer of the hospital, who requests anonymity, said “radiotherapy costs from N350,000 to N600,000 depending on the case presented.”

“However, this amount is only for radiotherapy sessions. When a patient comes to the hospital, he/she will obtain the hospital card, run some tests before commencing treatment,” she said.

She also said there is no fixed cost for chemotherapy. “Like I said, the case presented will determine the cost at that time,” she explained.

Cry for help

“I may die if I do not complete my treatment. I have seen people die from cancer and the thought of this scares me,” Ms Onumegu cried

She said she ought to have completed her treatment and gone back to her normal life. Sadly, lack of funds has stalled the process till date.

“After radiotherapy, I ought to have chemo immediately but I cannot afford it any longer. My doctor has advised me to complete my treatment because half treatment is not good for me. Cancer has taken all I have, it has drained me totally.

“All I need to complete my treatment is about N950,000. I want Nigerians to help me because I don’t know what will happen to me if I don’t complete my treatment,” she said.

Interventions

Meanwhile, the minister of health, Osagie Ehanire, earlier disclosed that the federal government is planning to roll out a cancer treatment fund to reduce the burden of treating cancer in Nigeria.

Mr Ehanire said this at the National health dialogue organised by PREMIUM TIMES in October, 2019.

“There will be a creation of a fund, either a cancer treatment fund or whatever we decide to call it. It is important and can be driven by investment or donation,” the minister said.

However, the government is yet to release further information on this.

‘Prevention better than cure’

Charles Okwonna, a Senior Registrar, Department of Radiotherapy and Oncology, Usman Danfodiyo University Teaching hospital, Sokoto said the government should first invest in free cancer screening and awareness.

“When cancer is detected early, the cost and the burden of treatment is cheaper,” he said. “Just like there is free screening for HIV and Hepatitis B, there should be free screening for the most common cancers in designated government hospitals.”

“People should have the opportunity to have free mammogram, free breast scan so when it’s detected early, it makes treatment less difficult,” he said

Cost reduction

Mr Okwonna also said there should be a designated fund strictly for treating cancer patients.

He, however, said it is impossible to make cancer treatment completely free.

“What the government can do is set up a centre per region or per state and say this is a centre of excellence for that region,” he said. “People with some specific kind of cancer can go there to obtain almost free treatment. These cancer treatments can be for low and middle-income people.”

He said, “those above the middle-income class can afford to go to either private hospitals or the expensive government hospitals.”

He also said the government should earmark 10 per cent of the annual budget and “ensure people who cannot afford the treatment benefit from it.”


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