Mrs. Betty Anyanwu-Akeredolu, wife of former President of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), Chief Rotimi Akeredolu, has survived breast cancer for 18 years and is lifting others with her courage.
The founder/president of the Breast Cancer Association of Nigeria (BRECAN), an NGO dedicated to galvanising action against breast cancer, spoke with HANNAH OJO about her journey into politics and activism, the exposure she got from her post-graduate studies in the Philippines, her life and marriage experience, among others.
You fought breast cancer gallantly and even opted to be treated in the country when you could afford to travel abroad for treatment. What kept your faith?
I keep going back to my sojourn in the Philippines. That was the first time I interacted with people of other races and realised that the basic needs of every human being are the same. Our aspirations are the same. I also realised that if you put a black and a white person in the same environment, you will get the same output.
Let me also say that when I went to the university, it was five credits at a sitting, including English Language and Mathematics. I make bold to say that at the time I went to the university, those who went to America to study were those who could not secure admission. You can quote me. The people who were medical doctors about that time would have been my contemporaries and I felt that they were capable. The only problem was that they didn’t have an enabling environment. It never crossed my mind to travel abroad for treatment. We can get a lot of things done if the environment is right.
Again, I will not fail to mention the Rolanda Show I watched on cable TV. It was titled ‘This Programme will save your life,’ featuring a breast cancer survivor Carol Baldwin (mother of the Baldwin brothers in Hollywood). The programme was a defining moment for me. Of course, by then I had already felt the lump and I was confused. I will not pretend that I didn’t hear of breast cancer, but I never paid attention. I never believed I would be a victim.
Your NGO has a strong presence in Ibadan. What has been the experience trying to share your experience with other women in the area?
This is about the 19th year. At the start, it was very difficult to even get our women to listen to the simple message of ‘examine your breast, if you notice anything, go to a hospital.’ Even till date, some Nigerian women will not even want to hear that. You give them fliers, they throw them back at you, saying ‘God forbid! It is not my portion.’ They are so fixated on a mindset that brings total disaster. By the time you keep saying you are covered with the blood of Jesus and you keep running to those who will tell you pray and fast, then the cancer gets to the first stage and that anointing will run away.
I want a situation where this message could get more support. I know things have gotten better. If they weren’t, there won’t be a place like BRECAN. The barrier we have now is to fund sustained awareness the way AIDS was funded. The HIV campaign was sustained by international funding. Unfortunately, cancer is not attracting that kind of funding.
What could be the reason for that?
Cancer is a priority in the developed countries. It is one of those diseases that are almost inevitable as they grow older. But we find out here that it is even afflicting us at a younger age. And since it is not an infectious disease, I think probably that is why all these donor agencies are not paying much attention. They would rather go for things like AIDS because aids can eliminate the entire country. If the consuming economies are wiped out, where will they sell their goods? They need to keep Africa alive because we are the consuming nations.
Women should no longer die of breast cancer. That is where the research has reached over there. But here, we are also trying to make people not to believe that cancer is caused by witches and wizards. So, if one fails to appreciate the biology of the disease, one will just die a needless death.
Looking inwards, what strategy do you adopt in attracting funds for your projects within the country?
Funding from abroad is even drying up because they are also experiencing economic hardship. I have always believed Nigeria is a rich country. For us at BRECAN, we have always looked inwards. We have invented creative ways to deal with it. I will continue to appreciate the exposure I had with international agencies, because when I started, the capacity building was all from outside. It’s not like they are dumping dollars like people want to believe, but the capacity building is what enabled me to think out of the box.
Another thing about the donor agencies is that they look at the priorities of the country. Cancer is not a priority for Nigeria; it is not even under the NHIS (National Health Insurance Scheme). Why should that be? In corporate Nigeria, if you don’t have connection when it comes to corporate sponsorship, you’ll go nowhere. If you are ready to play the ball, you do what they do. In Igboland, they call it agbatek, you are able to get it, they have their cut.
When I look at what I am here for, I can’t do that because this organisation was founded from my experience. This is not an NGO for want of what to do. So we come up with innovative ideas and somehow we have been struggling. Few well-meaning Nigerians have been supporting us. In Oyo State, when Governor Abiola Ajimobi came on board, the government supported us. Because we have gained some visibility internationally as well, people can also reach us through our website to support us. It’s one of such that birthed a programme we started this year; it is called the Omolara Jalaoso Memorial Lecture. The lady died of breast cancer in 2013 and her classmates decided to immortalise her with the remaining funds raised for donation for her treatment. They went through our website and called that they wanted to support us. I didn’t take them seriously at first because there are many 419ners around. They said it is a mustard seed that they want to germinate, so I said the best thing is to organise a lecture, using the school community.
You had to remove one of your breasts in order to survive cancer. What is your message to women who think mastectomy would make them less- appealing?
I understand a woman who feels concerned about her breast being removed. But I can tell you from my own experience that my preoccupation was how to live and be there for my children. Honestly, other women may have other priorities. For me, the question was ‘what am I going to do to stay? If it means removing this breast, please remove the dam thing!’. That was what I told my consultant.
I can’t stand thinking that another person will raise my children. When it comes to feeling deformed or feeling less sexy, it needs counselling. I was opportune to attend international conferences where I met women who have had the same experience and they are living their lives to the fullest. There are places where you can get the best breast pad and no one would be able to spot the difference.
Your husband is an icon in the legal profession and you are equally a strong woman in your own right. How do you manage conflicts when they arise?
The ingredient that oils the wheel of our marriage is communication. My son granted an interview recently where he referred to our house as a debating society. It is so because there is nothing my husband and I do not talk about. It could be when we are eating or in his room. There must be one topic we are discussing and we are never on the same side. But we always have a point of agreement at the end of it. That has been our life and in a way, we enjoy it. Even when we have misunderstanding, because of the vibrancy the conversation in our marriage gives to our home, we can’t keep malice for one day. And if you ask if I would marry him again, I will say yes multiple times. I think he would say yes too because he can’t have it better. He would always want to say something whenever he comes back from work. I don’t think Aketi can cope with any woman other than me.
How did you meet him?
It was during youth service, at a friend’s house in Enugu. Two youth corps members were visiting. One was visiting his girlfriend and Aketi accompanied him. It was love at first sight. I had always told my friends that the person who would be my husband, I would see him and my legs would start wobbling. And it happened that way. So I said if I could feel that way, then I would spend the rest of my life with this person and that was what happened. It was a mutual feeling and we knocked it off from there. What he told me was that he had always had that premonition that he might not even marry a Yoruba person. It didn’t come to him as a surprise that he eventually fell in love with an Igbo girl.
You are an Igbo woman married to a Yoruba man. How did you manage the culture clashes?
It was expected that there would be culture clashes, but if you are lucky to have someone that loves you and truly believes that you will spend the rest of your lives together, he would be protective of your own shortcomings. Of course, his parents were enlightened and they could let go. They were not very rigid. I think I can comfortably say that I had a breathing space and he made it possible. I will give the credit to him because some men would relax and say let her slug it out with the in-laws, but he didn’t. And here we are growing old together (laughs).
To what extent do you support his involve-ment in politics? Would he contest the Ondo State governorship again?
The support is 100 per cent for me. I am a politician too. Regarding his coming out again, he had his first shot at it and he is also one who believes in God’s time. But the pronouncement should come from him.
You have contested for positions before. Will you contest a seat in the future or just concern yourself with the activities of the NGO?
I am a politician myself. I am an advocate. I like to convince people to do things and these are the attributes of a politician. I will rather say time will tell.
At 62, you still look regal and elegant. Can you share the regimen that makes you look younger than your age?
People say you make the best out of a terribly bad situation. That was what happened in my own case. I am also aware that all diseases originate from the glut i.e. what you eat. I am also aware that with breast cancer, you can prolong your life through a change of lifestyle and that was exactly what I did. For almost five years, I have not swallowed eba, amala and pounded yam. They are out! I don’t take soda drinks. I have two adopted sons and they’ll tell you mummy’s food is water melon and groundnuts. Occasionally I take moi-moi. But my staple is groundnuts. I am a social eater of rice.
There are things that aid the proliferation of cancer cells, and they are sugar-based. I know the end product of carbohydrate is sugar, so if you need to add more years, cut down on carbohydrate, especially if you are a person living with cancer. Then eat more of fruits and vegetables; it’s detoxifies your system. Your skin glows and your hair become healthier. Again, exercise is important. I do Yoga every morning. In the morning between 5:30 and 6, I do 30 minutes aerobics. I have also introduced aerobics here and yoga. So, first Saturday of the month, members come here, both well women and survivors.
What is your advice to women who want to keep their homes and still remain relevant in the society?
Be yourself. Don’t pretend. If you are the type that wants to make a career out of your profession, let your husband know you are not going to be a full-time housewife. I know it is difficult for women to do it all, but you can joggle. Is it not terrible for a man to think that after a lady had graduated from the university, you want to keep her at home as a housewife? That is a loss to the nation and economy. Our children should realise this and we as parents should also help make the marriage of our children succeed.
My son is a financial analyst and his wife is a medical doctor. My son cooks and washes nappies when she is on call. I visit them in Canada and I don’t raise an eyebrow.
While in the civil service, did you have any experience of being pushed to the background on account of your gender?
Absolutely! Then in the civil service, apart from the redundancy, I found out that women were not well reckoned with. We all went for post-graduate courses, but the men, when we came back, were made field officers while the woman were under. I had been in the civil service for years before I was even made a field officer.
I remember one time when I was in Oyo State, I was second to the field officer. The field officer then was going on leave and instead of handing over the office to me, he handed it over to a junior officer. Gender inequality is a big problem within the civil service, but I think these days, when that happens, women kick. One recent example is that of Prof. Atahiru Jega, the former head of INEC when he was handling over his office. Zakari was supposed to be the most senior commissioner but he handed over the office to someone else, and I’m happy that President Muhammadu Buhari corrected that. When a position is due and a woman is supposed to occupy that position, she should have it. I think women should stand up and be counted when such injustice is done.