Surviving cancer is anything but easy, as every cancer diagnosis is unique in its challenges. However, Mrs. Abigail Simon-Hart has learnt to live positively as a breast cancer survivor.
She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014, six months after her mother died of leukemia.
Since her diagnosis, she has actively campaigned in cancer awareness programmes to raise funds for the financial and emotional support of cancer patients and their families.
Abigail, who co-founded a non-governmental organisation — The Bricon Foundation — in 2016, urges cancer survivors to use their experience to inspire others and improve survival in Nigeria.
The health consultant says she uses her personal story of survival to empower African women to see that cancer can be beaten and there is a need for African survivors to speak out to encourage others.
Speaking with our correspondent, the mother of two who hails from Benue State said she wanted to use the life lessons gained from her breast cancer journey to empower, inspire and educate African women who are facing similar or other traumatic life challenges.
“Until more survivors speak up, proving cancer can be beaten is very difficult.
“The perception and stigma associated with having any form of cancer are very often amplified by religious, traditional, and cultural beliefs and this affects people so badly that by the time they decide to go for ‘conventional’ treatment, it is already too late.
“Too often, it is a case of late presentation, rather than late detection, as many people will have gone to spiritual and traditional healers first and when it doesn’t work, only then do they go to the hospital, by which time it is too late.
“There is a need to incorporate faith into medical care, rather than abdicating the medical care totally for faith. While I believe miracles do occur and indeed even science gives room for miracles, most people do need medical care in addition to spiritual support to get better,” she said.
According to her, spiritual leaders need to be more involved in policy making and advocacy campaigns if there is to be any major impact in cancer control.
Sharing her cancer journey experience on her YouTube channel tagged, ‘A shade of pink Africa,” she said: “I grew up with a mother who had cancer four different times, four different times the doctors told us she was going to die, four different times my mother beat cancer. In fact, she lived for 33 years after the doctors told her she was going to die.
“She died of leukemia as a side effect of the medication that she was on and it was devastating.
“To make it even worse, six months after we buried my mother, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and I remember I was super angry but I realised that I have a choice. I can be totally miserable, I can slink into the darkness, or I can look at what the experiences taught me and that is what I decided to do.”
Continuing, she said she had a lumpectomy [removal of lump from breast] in 1993 when she found a breast lump but the experts misdiagnosed her.
“They said I had cancer when I didn’t have cancer. I was relieved when I got the negative result stating that it was benign.
“20 years later, I went for a mammogram. I was used to doing mammograms because my mother had breast cancer and I already had the scare.
“I went for a holiday in the UK and I had a health insurance so, I had a mammogram, whereupon the radiographer said that she wanted to do a biopsy.”
When the result of the biopsy came out, the doctor told her that she had cancer but she was fortunate that it was detected on time.
Five days later, she had a double mastectomy.
“After the mastectomy, I had this feeling that my life was going to change. My surgery was not straightforward, I had complications, I had to go back into the theatre because I was bleeding internally, my lung collapsed, I had to be rushed into the CT scan as they thought I had an embolism; it was all traumatic,” she recalled.
Afterward, she made up her mind to turn things around for good and use her experience to help other people.
“The amazing thing about having the mastectomy was it gave me choices. I didn’t have to worry about going for a mammogram, I could decide if I wanted to wear breast prosthesis.
“The day I want to wear breasts, I wear breasts and the day I don’t want to wear breasts, I don’t wear,” she said.
In her journey as a breast cancer survivor, she discovered that because of the importance of breasts as symbol of womanhood in African culture, femininity, and motherhood, many women do not want to take off their breasts by through a life-saving mastectomy.
“This results in many women dying because, by the time they finally agree to undergo surgery, it is often too late and the cancer would have spread already.
“I am quite public about my double mastectomy because I want to show women that there is no stigma in having breast cancer and removing your breasts to save your life; and secondly, that there are choices, even after cancer.
“Breasts can be reconstructed or women can wear external prosthesis inside a special bra with pockets to hold them in place.
“Nowadays the bras and prosthesis are so well made that it is difficult to tell who has real breasts and who doesn’t by just looking at someone wearing a bra.
“I tell women to let us deal with cancer first, we can look at options once that is under control,” she said.
Continuing, Abigail said, “Cancer is not a death sentence. I’m a living proof of that. Early detection and prevention remain the key to survival.
“It is important to check any changes in your body, don’t just assume there is nothing, as cancer presents in different forms.”
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