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January 2019
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In Conversation: Princess Nikky Onyeri (Part II)

October is the International Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Yesterday, I blogged about Princess Nikky Onyeri, a woman, who refuses to give up on her sisters and brothers on the African continent. Princess Nikky Onyeri has been credited for raising the profile of cancer in Nigeria and Africa. Her unwavering commitment to bring awareness about breast and cervical cancer on the continent has been described as exemplary. In part II of our interview, Princess Nikky Onyeri talks about some of the challenges they face as they try to educate more people about the killer disease known as cancer.

Nikky OnyeriBelinda: Is the Nigerian government lending a hand in the battle you are fighting?

Princess Nikky: What I could tell you is that we have not done badly in Nigeria, even during the military regime, we had support and when we write to the president, and they call to ask what it is that we want. The International Union Against cancer, the umbrella of cancer organisations in the world, based in Geneva, we worked with them during Obasanjo’s time and got them to appoint him as a cancer good will ambassador and that changed a lot of things. For the first time, we also had a cancer plan written and Nigeria today is one of the few countries in Africa with a national cancer policy in place. Not only that, Nigeria’s ministry of health, has started drawing up the national cervical plan on how to manage this particular area of cancer and there is a lot of potential around and I think Nigeria can do better because a country like Nigeria should be able to subsidise treatment for cancer but then, we can say the future looks bright because when we started, it was not this way. Therefore there is hope that more could be done from the government and individuals and we hope it can get better. And it is most important to reach those women that are unreachable.

Belinda: You have focused on breast cancer and cervical cancer in women but are there any plans to include men in the future?

Princess Nikky: Yes, we have done a pilot programme to see what success we could have if we do breast cancer, cancer of the cervix and prostate cancer, which you know is the common one for the men. It has huge potential and given that our environment is still totally male dominated. Most times, women who have breast cancer need the permission of their husbands to make a decision whether to have a mastectomy or to undergo treatment. So we need to bring the men onboard. Like I tell people, how do you reach a person who does not have breast? Men have breast but it is not the breast of a woman. You can only go from the known to the unknown and if you educate the man about prostate cancer, then breast and cervical cancer, that way, we will be getting more support and creating better awareness. And what we are also witnessing not just in Africa, most times, women don’t step up to take care of their personal health. We take care of everybody else you in the home and our health is the last thing on the agenda. So, if we educate the men and some of the men have been the ones who detected the lumps in the women’s breast. And say, hey, there is something strange and go to the hospital.

Belinda: How are you funded and what are some of the challenges you have encountered along the way?

Princess Nikky: I tell people that if you don’t have the conviction and the passion and you don’t believe in what you are doing, you cannot do this. Cancer is not on any health agenda in the world, not to talk of Africa. The money is going to malaria, Aids and tuberculosis. That is where the global funding is going. The funding aspect has to come from within, you must know where you are going to get the funding and sometimes use your personal resources. The family has helped a lot because I know there are times we want to run a programme and when I don’t have the money, my brothers and sisters raise the funds within themselves and send to the foundation. But raising money within the country has been very tasking because we have been unlucky to have people who are not working in this area coming out to say they are doing something when they are not. And suddenly people are not giving as such and I do not know why but the beauty of what we have done over the years is that we have kept going and didn’t lose faith and along the line we have had our break and got international funding. When we had this cervical cancer meeting, it was been funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. We received some support from the industry people who support some of our activities. So yes, we don’t have the type of money we will use for but we are still going and I tell people that if for the next few years, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is still funding us, then the sky is the limit.

Belinda: Apart from the financial difficulties, have you had to physically challenge anyone especially when it comes to addressing cultural and traditional beliefs and practices?

Nikky: That terrain is not just the traditional. My experience has been challenging and has not been a tea party. We have so many forces, we have the traditional healers but also the religious leaders who talk of healing powers, saying that they can cure cancer. I tell people that I have faith and I have seen people who received their healing but it’s not just healing for healing sake and it’s always backed up with treatment.  I tell people that first of all, the doctors are created by God and when they give you the drug, you pray on it and say, God please, give me my healing through this drug. The traditional, religious and cultural people, don’t forget in Africa are powerful leaders and people believe and trust them. Therefore you have to tread carefully but what we have managed to do especially with the two conferences we are holding around Africa. Every year in March, we hold annual African Breast Cancer conference. Every July we hold Cervical Cancer in Africa conference and we move this around regions in Africa. The breast cancer conference was held, first in Nigeria, Egypt and in 2010, it was held in Uganda. The Cervical cancer one was held in Nigeria, Uganda, South Africa and the one for 2010 was held in Ghana. What we try to do at our meetings is what I call a model for Africa, it is also for the world to see the best way to work and to make issues succeed. We work with scientist and policy makers, we try to bring in all relevant people – government people who are health ministers, the first ladies, presidents of the countries and scientist to present science and data. We also invite the advocates and survivals to tell their stories because these are powerful human stories for those who don’t believe this is a disease in Africa, when they se and hear these people, they realise it is real. Then we invite the traditional healers, the religious leaders and cultural leaders. Imagine a situation where you have everybody sitting at the same table and sharing information. It is such a powerful thing and I think that is why we are making a better success of what we are doing in Africa and I hope the world will take up the same model. And now we are getting enquiries from Latin America and Asia to say we share the same issue, so, why don’t you think of coming to show us, how you are doing it. And this year, 2010 is going to be busy going to Latin America and Asia to tell them about this idea of bringing everybody to the table. The traditional healers, ‘we are telling them, we are not driving you out of your market but please when you notice this strange disease that you don’t have any idea about, can you send them to the hospital.’ That way, we are getting our message across through the backdoor. We are not telling them you are bad but we are telling them we need your help to be able to solve this problem. We are also telling the religious leaders, ‘when these people come to your religious settings and so on, be mindful about what you tell them that you are healing because you know it is not true because by the time you deceive them for such a long time, at the end of the day, when you send them to the hospital only for them to die.’ So it is bringing changes…its not that the changes have come the way we want it but if it is one or two people we are able to convince…for example, the meeting we had in July 2009, in South Africa, we had the traditional leaders council meeting. We wrote to them and said, can you nominate people to attend our meeting and by the time they shared the information with everybody, they walked up and said, we did not know and we are grateful that you have opened this panel of communication for us to come onboard because some people have always castigated us, giving us bad names. We are willing to help and work on this issue with you.

Belinda: What do you hope will be the outcome of the next Stop cervical cancer in Africa conference in Ghana?

Nikky: The second Annual Africa Breast cancer Conference was held in 2009 and in Egypt. The third one for 2010 was held in Kampala, Uganda. The fourth Stop Cervical Cancer in Africa conference was held in Accra, Ghana. Normally, each of these meetings, the government of the country – the health ministries and the first lady of the country are the chief hostesses and both countries are already involved in the forum of African first ladies. The fact that the first lady steps up on an issue to talk about it, there is attention and the country and the region responds. For example, in Uganda, it is not just country but other first ladies are now stepping to the issue and confirming attendance. Hence it gets attention and the media takes note. However, it is not just getting attention, it is where it matters. Working with the first ladies of the different African countries has been useful in its own way. In addition, our work is going to see Janet Museveni addressing the parliament of Uganda about the issue of breast and cervical cancer and maternal healthcare making her the first lady to do so in the region. The more we step on women issues, the better understanding we will get form our men who especially in Africa, control the budget of the country. I think we will see the shift in policies.

To find out more about Princess Nikky Onyeri and support her work, visit: Princess Nikky Cancer Foundation


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