“Cancer is curable” – Dr Chinedu Aruah

Dr. Chinedu Aruah, Head of Department, Radiation and Clinical Oncology, National Hospital Abuja
Dr. Chinedu Aruah, Head of Department, Radiation and Clinical Oncology, National Hospital Abuja

Today is 2021 World Cancer Day. Every February 4 since the year 2000, is set apart by the United Nations, UN to raise global awareness about cancer, improving education, and catalysing personal, collective, and government action. The global uniting initiative is led by the Union for International Cancer Control, UICC.

“We are working together to re-imagine a world where millions of preventable cancer deaths are saved and access to life-saving cancer treatment and care is equal for all – no matter who you are or where you live,” says UICC.

This year, the theme is, ‘I am and I Will’, which UICC says “is all about you and your commitment to act.”

The Union believes “that through our positive actions, together we can reach the target of reducing the number of premature deaths from cancer and non-communicable diseases by one third by 2030.”

Back home, cancer is ravaging Nigeria, and the international call for action becomes more immediate as thousands of our citizens die every year from one type of cancer or another. Dr. Chinedu Aruah, Head of Department, Radiation and Oncology, National Hospital, Abuja and senior lecturer, University of Abuja College of Medicine, told the TELL in an interview that it is indeed a time for everyone to act positively to save precious lives from being cut in their prime by cancer.

He disclosed that “Nigeria has about 115,950 new cases of cancer annually with about 70, 327 cancer-related deaths annually.”

This means that the fatality from cancer far outnumbers that of COVID-19 which has suspended the world in fear for the past one year. For its feared mortality rate, COVID-19, for nearly one year, has killed 1,618 persons in Nigeria as at February 3, 2021, out of 134,690 cases. This makes the call to action an imperative.

An estimated 20, 000 Nigerians go to India annually for the treatment of cancer-related diseases. But Dr. Aruah says Nigeria is improving so much in the domestic management of cancer. In December 2017, he revealed, “We installed our new radiotherapy machine at the National Hospital, Abuja Radiation Oncology Centre.”

Since then, management of cancer has improved remarkably at the National Hospital. “We have treated over 3,000 cases since we installed the new radiotherapy machine. We have recorded low mortality because of high treatment precision and less post-treatment complications,” he disclosed.

Visits to the National Hospital, Abuja, and the other seven cancer treatment centres in Nigeria, show that more women than men are afflicted with cancer-related diseases. Aruah confirms that “Overall, we have treated more female than male, taking cognizance of the fact that breast cancer is the most common cancer in Nigeria.”

The most common cancers prevalent in Nigeria are breast, cervical, prostate, colorectal, non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, he further revealed.

Asked about the facilities that the National Hospital has for the treatment of cancer patients, Aruah said “We have comprehensive departments in National Hospital, Abuja that are basic requirement for cancer care. But for Radiation and Clinical Oncology Department, we have chemotherapy administration section, and radiotherapy. We have two Linear accelerators, Brachytherapy machine, CT Simulator, and Monaco Treatment Planning System, as well as Record and Verify system.”

Put together, there are about eight cancer treatment centres in Nigeria; but University of Lagos Teaching Hospital, LUTH, and National Hospital, Abuja, are at the forefront in cancer treatment in Nigeria. There are other private centres coming up, and effort by government to expand these centres.

Be that as it may, doctors face so many challenges in the treatment of cancer in Nigeria. What is Aruah’s perception of this?

“There are less than 90, 000 qualified Radiation and Clinical Oncologists in Nigeria. This means inadequate manpower taking cognizance of our estimated population of over 200 million people. This also extends to Therapy Radiotheraphers and Medical Physicists. Others are lack of functional radiotherapy machine in most of the designated cancer centres; poor infrastructure, lack of Linear Accelerator trained engineers; lack of machine spare parts, and poor remuneration of workers.

Nigeria has a place along Airport Road designated as “National Cancer Centre” but it remains under lock and key over the years. When TELL visited the facility on Thursday January 27, it was locked with no security man on duty. It is the expectation of Nigerians that when the Centre becomes active, it would provide the specialized services that Nigerians seek overseas, and save the country scarce foreign exchange.

Aruah, assures that “Government is working hard to get the facility running and functional.”

On the theme of this year’s World Cancer Day, “I am; and I Will”, he says it is most appropriate. “This is important to look at individual roles and collective effort to stem the tide of cancer by creating necessary awareness and taking appropriate preventive measures to avoid cancer development.”

He has a great message of hope for Nigerians to mark this year’s celebration, a positive bomb, sort of: “Cancer is a curable disease and the secret to survive it is to have good health-seeking behaviour and lifestyle modification.”

He assures Nigerians that “National Hospital, Abuja remains number one cancer centre in Nigeria. There is no need to waste our scarce resources on overseas treatment of cancer. With government and private sector support, there is nothing we cannot achieve in Nigeria, including comprehensive cancer care.”

According to the Union for International Cancer Control, “2021 – the ultimate year of the ‘I am and I Will’ campaign – shows us that our actions have an impact on everyone around us, within our neighbourhoods, communities, and cities. And that more than ever, our actions are also being felt across borders and oceans. This year is a reminder of the enduring power of cooperation and collective action. When we choose to come together, we can achieve what we all wish for: a healthier, brighter world without cancer, a reminder that each one of us can play a role in reducing the impact of cancer. Together, all of our actions matter.”

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