International News

Nigerian Women Say Catholic Hospital’s Free Cancer Screenings Are Saving Lives

St. Vincent De Paul Hospital’s new building in the Kubwa suburb of Abuja, Nigeria, is seen in this undated photo. The building was commissioned April 27, 2019, by Cardinal John Onaiyeka, then archbishop of Abuja. As Nigeria’s breast and cervical cancer cases continue to soar, the medical facility, run by the Daughters of Charity, offers women free screening for these cancers. (Photo: OSV/Valentine Benjamin)

By Valentine Benjamin

ABUJA, Nigeria (OSV News)– In December 2021, 56-year-old Ijeoma Njoku, a mother of five, heard an announcement during Mass at her local church in Nigeria’s capital city of Abuja about a free breast and cervical screening at St. Vincent De Paul Hospital.

The medical facility is run by Daughters of Charity in Kubwa, 12 miles from Njoku’s home in Ushafa, a small village surrounded by rocks near Abuja, and the free-of-charge program had begun operations that December.

“I had to participate because as a woman, you need to routinely check yourself, especially when you are above 40 years of age. But it wasn’t my first time opting for a breast cancer screening,” Njoku said. She had her first screening in 2017 and was not able to make it to the hospital for another one, until the sisters started the free cancer screening.

“It’s a disease nobody would like to experience because it feels like a death sentence when it’s diagnosed and confirmed,” Njoku told OSV News.

Africa’s growing cancer epidemic is troubling, particularly as it competes with the continent’s other health care needs. It also is a leading cause of deaths worldwide, accounting for nearly 10 million deaths in 2020, or nearly one in six deaths. According to the World Health Organization, most common cancers are breast, lung, colon and rectum and prostate cancers.

So is the case in Nigeria, where breast cancer is the most common one, with more than 28,000 Nigerian women being diagnosed with breast cancer, and more than 14,000 dying from the disease in 2020.

Late-stage diagnosis and inadequate access to quality breast cancer care has led to high death rates as the country struggles with fewer than 90 clinical oncologists to provide cancer treatment for more than 100,000 patients. Nigeria’s health care system is poorly funded, only 4% to 6% of its budget is allocated to health, and mass emigration of skilled medical practitioners make things worse.

Juliet Emekwa, 32, a businesswoman in Abuja — who also benefited from the free cancer screening — lived in fear of dying like many other women.

“Many (women) do not know their status, and they are not even bothered to go for diagnosis, that’s why we have a lot of people discovering that they have (cancer) at a very late stage,” she said.

St. Vincent De Paul Hospital is filling this need by providing both inpatient and outpatient nursing and rehabilitation services to patients who require continuous health care. The medical facility is run by the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, an international congregation founded by St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac in 1633 in France.

The major areas of the Daughters of Charity apostolate in the congregation’s Nigeria province are education, health care services, services to people with disabilities, social services, pastoral care and spiritual formation.

The Daughters of Charity in Nigeria started their medical outreach in the Archdiocese of Abuja in May 1996 by providing free mobile services to occupants of remote villages, who could not access or afford health care.

Now, the religious sisters and medical staff organize free breast and cervical cancer screening for women at the hospital in the Abuja suburb of Kubwa.

Dr. Patrick Ezie, head of clinical services at the hospital, said the screening project was developed by the sisters and the entire medical team when they realized that a lot of women in Nigerian communities were affected with late-diagnosed breast cancer due to lack of awareness.

“We started looking into cases of breast and cervical cancer in December 2021, when we started seeing the number of cases increase, with more women discovering cancer lump in their breasts, without knowing what it means for them. And these are issues that are preventable if the women are educated,” Ezie told OSV News.

“We started with prevention because it is cheaper and at the end of the day, you’d reach more people with the knowledge of how to prevent breast and cervical cancer, which ultimately still reduces the burden on people who eventually have the illness,” he said.

The team of doctors and nuns follow the principles of St. Vincent de Paul, whose vocation was to help the poor in the society, especially in sickness, Ezie added.

“These are people who have medical problems and may not be able to access the care that they require because of the social circumstances they find themselves in. St. Vincent de Paul in his teachings asks us to look out for them and encourages us to see what we can do about such people living in society with us,” the doctor emphasized.

Ezie said that women diagnosed with any sign of cancer would be referred to the appropriate gynecologist in the hospital facility for further treatments and diagnosis.

“In some cases, we do surgery to remove the cancer entirely, to save the woman’s life,” he said.

About 200 women from far and near communities, including churchgoers around Kubwa, where the hospital is situated, have benefited from the program since it started in December 2021.

“The project is free of charge to the patients,” Ezie said, thanks to anonymous donors.