My name is Miss Folake Olabisi Ajibola. In June 2016, at the prime age of 48 and with two young daughters to care for, I was diagnosed with Stage 2 invasive breast carcinoma, otherwise known as breast cancer. This is my story.
Cancer had wreaked havoc on my family before, as I had lost my immediate senior sister to this dreaded disease roughly two decades ago. She was the victim of a wrong diagnosis by a Nigerian hospital, but out of respect for my late sister, and to protect the privacy of the family she left behind, I will refrain from sharing any details. Suffice it to say that the experience was an eye opener and a wake up call for me. I didn’t know much else, but I knew about the monthly breast check in front of your mirror and I did this religiously before and after my periods.
Nevertheless, somewhere between the chaos of being a single mum, striving and hustling to give my girls the best in life, I forgot about my monthly breast checks and just focused on survival in the harsh Lagos economy. However, I knew I had fibroids and even though they hadn’t prevented my having my girls, they seemed to be getting progressively bigger. I grew really concerned when my daughters started asking when the new baby was coming – my stomach was that big! Eventually, I decided to try a herbal organic approach to getting rid of the fibroids and I also made up my mind to start taking better care of myself and my health. I thought it was time to get the old me back. I decided to check my breasts after years of not doing so, and lo and behold, I found a very obvious lump! Initially, I went into denial and simply refused to touch the area for weeks. Instead, I convinced myself that if I prayed hard enough, the lump would just magically shrink and disappear. Well that didn’t happen, and finally, dread and panic set in. Who would care for my two daughters? How would they cope without me? In this world of sexual predators, even among family members, my fear for my girls was real.
Finally, I resigned myself to fate and accepted that I was going to die as I knew I couldn’t afford treatment, and in any case, I had no trust in the Nigerian medical system because of what had happened to my sister. I thus decided to send my “twin” Mrs. Labo Desalu, a Whatsapp message. We call each other twins as she was born exactly nine months after me and we were practically inseparable growing up. My message was simple: “I have found a lump in my right breast. I am not going to do anything about it as I can’t afford treatment so please expect my daughters soon.” In other words, I had accepted my imminent death and was giving her custody of my children. Labo had a better plan, however, and she executed it perfectly. She and I are old girls of the prestigious Queen’s College (QC) Yaba, and personally, I do not believe there is a better sisterhood than that found in the 1983 set – awesome, beautiful, gracious, loving sisters they are! Knowing that I could not be convinced to seek treatment on my own, Labo planned with one of our beautiful QC sisters, Mrs Bimbo Akinkugbe, to “kidnap” me. That was how my journey towards survival started.
Bimbo picked me up from my younger daughter’s school under the pretext of taking me to buy aso-ebi for an upcoming event. Once I was safely ensconced in her car though, she instead whisked me off to Medicure for both a mammogram and sonogram. The results of the tests showed a lump that had spread to my lymph nodes. Without a biopsy the diagnosis could not be accurate, however the medical report noted the cancer as a BRCA level 5. I didn’t know exactly what all this meant, but I was in tears again – I was sure there was no hope. Bimbo, on the other hand, swung into action with Labo’s full cooperation. Within 24 hours, she had sent e-mails out to Apollo Hospital in India (they had been awesome in her family member’s treatment a few years back so she had valuable contacts). She also sent emails out to friends and family, and within the week, Queens College ‘83 set held an impromptu meeting on our Whatsapp group chat.
A week later, Apollo Hospital sent a tentative cost for treatment and the fundraising began in earnest. In all my despair, I most certainly didn’t bargain on the kindness of old schoolmates, most of whom I hadn’t seen or spoken to in over 30 years! Unbelievably, within a month, we had raised more than enough for initial surgeries and chemotherapy. Still Bimbo wasn’t done! She found an Indian citizen to vouch for me at the embassy, and a colleague of hers and her husband’s to stand for me with his bank account statements (which looked like three physics text books rolled into one). People I had never met rose up on my behalf in a way that still blows my mind.
It all came together and on the 23rd of June 2016, I was on my way to India. A full biopsy was done when I arrived at Apollo Hospital, after which I received the definitive diagnosis of stage 2 invasive breast carcinoma. The first stage of treatment was a surgical removal of the affected right breast. I also elected to have the second breast removed and to undergo a full hysterectomy. After the surgeries, I had a course of chemotherapy that ran for four months (eight courses given once every fortnight). This was followed by a month of radiotherapy (20 shots in all). The treatments were grueling and emotionally draining, but finally, after seven long months in India, I was given the all clear. I returned to Lagos on January 19th, 2017 although I have to go back to India for a check up in six months’ time. I am confident that I will have a full remission report then.
In the meantime, I am motivated and energized by the realization that I have been given another shot at a life. My mission now is to work to raise awareness about the importance of taking charge of our personal health and wellbeing. I found my lump by simply doing a regular self-check of my breasts. If I had not been proactive about checking my breasts, I might not be here to tell this story today. I would like to encourage every woman reading this to please develop the habit of carrying out regular self-checks. Doing this could literally be a matter of life and death. Knowledge is the best defense in the fight against the scourge that is breast cancer.
My journey is far from over, but the fear is gone and I can see a ray of light at the end of the tunnel. I now strongly believe in living life to the full each day, as I am acutely aware that tomorrow is not promised to anyone. I am forging ahead with giving my children the best that I can. I am here, albeit missing a few body parts but here nevertheless…breathing, talking, walking…alive. What more could I ask for?
I am eternally grateful to each and every one who has in one way or another reached out to give me a second chance at life, and my daughters the opportunity to have their mother around for a little while longer. Your miracles will not pass you by.
To my Father, Almighty God, I give eternal praise and honour. Baba e se, mo dupe!!