The Hidden Epidemic

Fighting Cancer in Nigeria

Twenty-two-year-old cancer patient Saadatu Usaman at the National Hospital in Abuja, Nigeria. (Photo: G. Tudor/IAEA)

Twenty-two-year-old Saadatu Usaman was beating her cancer when the money for the treatment ran out. Now it´s spread to her chest, and the new drugs she needs cost even more.

"Cancer has changed my life so dramatically. I´m no longer the Saadatu of yesterday, who could work 24 hours without getting tired," she whispers between shallow, rapid breaths. "When I was at school I read very well, day and night without stop. But now I can´t even do that. I can´t do anything."

Saadatu´s cancer has gone too far to be treated by surgery or radiotherapy, so chemotherapy at the National Hospital in Nigeria´s capital, Abuja, is the only option.

Cancer is often seen as mainly a disease of the rich, yet nearly three quarters of all cancer deaths occur in developing countries - the equivalent of a jumbo jet crashing every hour - and the numbers are rising.

A lack of preventive, diagnostic and treatment facilities means that literally millions of people are dying whose lives would be prolonged or even saved if they happened to live in the developed world.

Cancers here often stem from other diseases that could be controlled, such as human papillomavirus (HPV). This is closely linked to cervical cancer, which, along with breast cancer, is one of Africa´s biggest cancer killers.

Fear, taboos and lack of screening mean that most patients seek help when it is already too late.

"The biggest challenge is late presentation: it is a huge one," said Dr. Festus Igbinoba, the hospital´s Chief Consultant in Radiology and Oncology, who learned his specialism in Vienna with IAEA support.

"Even when they come and we want to treat the patient, there is the issue of finance. We have a lot of patients we can do something for, but they will tell you ´Sorry doctor, there is no money´."

Equipment is another stumbling block. Radiotherapy is highly effective against many cancers, but Nigeria has only four radiotherapy centres for a population of 150 million people. Trained staff are in short supply, and maintenance is a major challenge; all but one of the radiotherapy machines at the National Hospital are currently out of order.

The IAEA´s expertise with cancer lies in radiotherapy and nuclear medicine, but it is also working with the World Health Organisation and other partners on a much broader front to support training and coordinated cancer control programmes that would give people like Saadatu a better chance.

"I have a dream to get up, to get out of this sickness, to be what I´m destined to be. I´m a graduate but I can´t work," she says. "I´m running around, searching for money, looking for help."

Unless more cash can be found for new treatment, she may have only months to live.

Last update: 11 November 2014