By Amina Gambari
Two years after Michael Onywewuchi was born, doctors at Lagos State University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) diagnosed him with leukemia, a cancer of blood-forming tissues that hinders the body’s ability to fight infection.
Different types of cancer exist including acute lymphocytic leukemia, which Michael suffers from. To treat him, doctors at LUTH said it will cost at least N500,000 ($1,124). An amount that was impossible to raise by his widowed mother, Ijeoma Onyewuchi, who earns less than N2,000 ($3) a day.
“I couldn’t raise money for his [Michael] treatment,” Onyewuchi, the mother-of-five, said. “He was diagnosed with cancer the same year I lost my husband.”
In Nigeria, 115,950 cancer cases were recorded in 2018, which resulted in 70,327 deaths. In the same year, the estimated indices of leukemia – the most common cancer in children and teens – stood at 2.3%.
“Childhood cancer burden is an important global child health concern,” Dr. Eno-Obong Bassey, Chief Consultant Paediatrician at the University of Uyo Teaching Hospital, said in an interview. “Not all children with cancer can be cured, but the relief of suffering is possible for every one of them.”
Bassey stressed that in high-income countries, the advancement of new treatments for cancer, high-quality follow-up care, and proper monitoring, have contributed to an increase in childhood cancer survival rate. But in developing countries like Nigeria, several factors including poor healthcare service and infrastructure, reduce the survival rate.
For many, delay in instituting treatment and abandonment of treatment results in death says, Bassey.
“Oftentimes, due to financial, physical, mental and emotional burn-out of patients and parents or caregivers, treatment is abandoned or not sought,” she said.
This was the case of Onyewuchi as she watched her son battle for life on his sick bed.
The CLWCF way
Since 2002, Children Living With Cancer Foundation (CLWCF), a Lagos-based non-governmental organization committed to reducing childhood cancer in Nigeria, says it has helped 300 children survive cancer. Using seemingly philanthropic measures, CLWCF is providing access to healthcare and empowering mothers to cater to their sick children.
Their approach is to create awareness about childhood cancer through an annual Walkathon. Their Walkathon is done in collaboration with health practitioners and parents with kids who have cancer. It is also a fundraising activity and proceeds are used to pay medical expenses and bills of children signed onto their program.
Currently, CLWCF is supporting over 175 children who are in the hospital receiving some form of treatment or undergoing chemotherapy. With a large network of diagnostic and treatment centers, CLWCF, has a repository of hospitals that provide treatment for children with cancer and uses this database to guide parents and caregivers.
In the case of Onyewuchi, CLWCF referred her son to Afriglobal, one of the diagnostic centers CLWCF works with, for another diagnosis. After which her son was referred back to LUTH for radiotherapy and surgery. CLWCF paid for his treatment.
“They have been great assistance since I lost my husband. They helped with his treatment and saved my son’s life,” Onyewuchi said.
At its core, CLWCF, is purely philanthropic in nature but its commitment to tackling childhood cancer presents some important lessons. For example, developing relationships with health practitioners and cancer treatment centers help provide the right information and access for caregivers who find themselves catering to a child with cancer.
On another level, their Walkathon encourages a sense of community, especially for parents and caregivers.
“Knowing they are not alone and having someone or people to share their burden with strengthens some parents seeking treatment for their wards, says Dr. Mrs. Nneka Nwobbi, the founder of CLWCF.
Empowering parents and caregivers
Beyond supporting treatment, CLWCF also invests in developing the skills of parents so that they can fend for themselves. This is directed at low-income families signed onto their program.
“The cost of treatment is very expensive and we cannot bear the brunt entirely. We organize skill acquisition such as tailoring for some parents and encourage them to start profitable businesses,” Nwobbi said.
Regardless, Nwobbi says parents easily get discouraged with the process, especially since a child whose condition cannot be cured would require lifelong treatment. Sometimes, parents conclude their child’s condition is spiritual, which then pushes them to seek solutions in religious centers.
“I have seen many parents leave our center to seek alternative treatments. Some go to church and some seek traditional remedies,” she said.
Another lesson is the organization’s unique way of crowdfunding; CLWCF promotes an adoption drive. One individual or a group of persons can adopt a child or more by providing financial support for the treatment of the child. They are informed about the health progress of the child from time to time.
“For most people who choose to adopt, it’s about living beyond themselves and knowing that they are responsible for another. It is a simple test of humanity,” Nwobbi said.
However, there are moments of sadness. Although Nwobbi didn’t disclose how many losses they’ve experienced, she says “when a child doesn’t survive, it can be discouraging.”
Another way it crowdfunds is by using digital tools and social media to seek donations. Nwobbi has appeared on different television shows to create awareness about cancer and also promote the adoption program. This fundraising method according to her has yielded results for the many years they have been in operation. It also helps that they get sponsorships from companies and other organizations. However, Nwobbi expressed that engaging people about cancer can be difficult because many Nigerians are superstitious and some would rather live in denial.
This story was produced in partnership with Nigeria Health Watch through the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.