Childhood cancers: Bundles of joy now enduring life of agony

Despite the growing number of childhood cancers in Nigeria, there is no remission for the children who fight this deadly disease. Parents of such children tell LARA ADEJORO the financial and emotional drains that go with childhood cancer management

Tomiwa Osisanya is 16. He he has spent three years in pains since he was diagnosed with cancer in 2018 — the year no fewer than 30,000 children like him came down with cancer in Nigeria.

That figure, according to experts, has been consistent every year.

Worse, the chances of him surviving are on a wing and a prayer because, according to those experts, childhood cancer mortality rate in Nigeria is very high because of a range of factors, the biggest being accessibility to, and affordability of, care.

Others, according to Prof. Sani Malami, President, the Nigerian Cancer Society, include misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis, inadequate and poorly trained manpower, absence of chemotherapeutic agents, lack of radiotherapy facilities, inadequate or inappropriate diagnostic support, and poorly developed health insurance services.

“For these reasons, the survival rates for childhood cancers are low,” Malami said.

The Osisanyas and other families of children living with cancer have also confirmed this. They explained how huge bills start piling up right from the registration procedure to the treatment, and they pay all these out of pocket, mainly by sourcing for funds from relations, friends, and non-governmental organisations.

This reflects the reality faced by families affected by childhood cancer: It never only affects the child; it also impacts families who strive valiantly to ameliorate a child’s suffering.

In resource-limited settings like Nigeria, cure rates have lagged behind and survival rates from childhood cancer are low due to the lack of political will on the part of government, unaffordable cost of treatment, and delayed diagnosis, among others.

“Even for adult cancers, only a handful of patients are eligible for free treatment in Nigeria in the modified National Health Insurance Scheme,” Malami said.

For Tomiwa’s father, Mr. Sola Osisanya, all hopes of paying his son’s medical bills depend on loved ones and a non-governmental organisation for the treatment of his son who has a brain tumor.

Besides brain tumor, leukemia, kidney cancer, and retinoblastoma are other types of cancer afflicting children in Nigeria, according to Malami.

For young Osisanya battling brain cancer, ever since his treatment began in 2019, his father has been bearing the financial burden of taking care of him.

“When we had the first surgery at the University College Hospital, Ibadan, we paid hundreds of thousands of naira, and we were referred to the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, Idi-Araba, where we also paid almost N1,000,000 for the treatment,” he said.

“In fact, we had to pay N30,000 first for registration. This is apart from the treatment. In August, we had another surgery and we spent nearly N1.5m,” he added.

All this spending didn’t include the cost of hotel accommodation and feeding, though, as they had relocated from Ibadan where they live.

“We are meant to go for another treatment now, but I’m stuck because there is no money.

“If not for some people that I call for help, and the Founder of Children Living with Cancer Foundation, Dr. Nneka Nwobbi, it would have been worse,” he lamented.

A tough journey

Mr. Godwin Agu recalls how horrendous he felt when he was told that his daughter’s symptoms were caused by cancer.

Kelechukwu Agu was only six-years-old in 2016 when she was diagnosed with kidney cancer.

“She had a lump in her right ribs and she was emaciating; so, her mother decided to take her to the staff clinic at the University of Lagos, Akoka.

“From there, we went for a scan and within hours, we received the devastating news that she had kidney cancer,” Agu said.

Agu, who is in his 70s, struggles to fend for his family while his wife’s salary cannot match up with their needs.

Narrating the tough journey, he said they were referred to LUTH where they stayed up to two months until they ran out of money.

It was in that state of despair the second month that Dr. Nwobbi came to their rescue.

“We were paying huge money. I can’t even remember how much we spent in total. Truthfully, parents are suffering and struggling to take care of these children,” he said.

While they were at the hospital, they saw some children in the ward die because there was no money to continue the treatment.

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