Dr. Femi Olaleye is the Medical Director and CEO of Optimal Cancer Care Foundation – a foundation that has provided free screening to over 50,000 women. He is also the recipient of many awards including the “African Medical Doctor, 2015” award. In this interview with PharmaTimes WAIRE EMONEFE, he speaks on his work, the state of cancer care in Nigeria, and the way forward in the fight against cancer.
Tell us about Optimal Cancer Care Foundation?
Optimal Cancer Care Foundation is a non-governmental organisation set up as a charity to help raise awareness on cervical, prostate and breast cancer. We also create access and opportunity for people to get screened and have access to early intervention, techniques and treatment for those people who discover they have abnormalities in their cervix, breast or prostrate. The aim of this is to reduce the number of people who die from these cancers due to late detection.
Free screening exercises every Friday and subsidised rates for vaccination are a few of the programmes that the foundation offers. How long have you been running these programmes?
All the programmes running here have been on for 5 years. The NGO was registered with Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) in 2012 and we started work by December 2012, and every Friday since, we’ve been offering free screening. Women just pay a registration fee of 500 naira and we also subsidise the cost of the screening. Screening would normally cost 5,000 naira, but on every other day of the week, women pay just 2,500 naira. We also subsidise our vaccination for women and their daughters. We also raise special funds for treatment for those who cannot afford it. We try to see a way to help all members of the society to access this care as a way to act out the main core values of the foundation, which are care, compassion and hope.
What inspired you to start this foundation?
Three things inspired me. The first thing was ‘NEED’. I saw that there was a need for it. The rate for the incidence of cancers, particularly these three cancers, is very high, and the government is really not doing anything, while a lot of people need it. The second reason is ‘PURPOSE’. Everyone wants to have a purpose in life and I’ve found this as my purpose. The third reason is ‘ALTRUISM’. Nigeria trained me as a doctor. Nigeria has given me an identity. I’m somebody. I’m a Nigerian doctor. That platform that Nigeria gave me requires that I give back to the society. The society expects everyone to be able to give back to it. It’s the continuum of life really. Nigeria put in a position where I had gotten a good training, an identity, a good name, and while I was overseas I saw the need and I had the skills. It was only natural that I saw this as a purpose for my life. So, I resigned from my job in England and came back to Nigeria, even though it involved a lot of sacrifices, and I feel fulfilled doing this now.
In your professional opinion, how is Nigeria faring in the fight against cancer?
The honest truth is that we have not even started preparing. We are virtually ‘nowhere’. I graduated from medical school 26 years ago, and the infrastructure that existed while I was in medical school is still the same thing now; nothing new has been added in 26 years. It’s really terrible. Apart from that, the readiness of government to raise awareness about a disease that kills women every hour is not there. If the government is ready to do something, they can start marshalling resources, budgetary allocation, donations, bilateral agreements that can exist between us and other countries that have the equipment to help us.
But that’s not happening. We don’t even have a policy on cancer care. It was towards the end of last year, that the president signed a bill, for the first time in the 57 years of our country on cancer control in Nigeria. If it has taken us 57 years to sign a bill, that would only allow the government to set up an agency that would coordinate and correlate cancer control in Nigeria. How do we assess that? We have just started. That’s why NGOs like mine are doing what we are doing in order to get succour to our people.
What is the way forward in this fight against cancer?
The way forward is on three levels. First of all, we need to educate people, to let them know their risk. Nothing is preparing Nigerians for a diagnosis of cancer. Religious organisations are not telling the people the truth and we are a very religious people. Our healthcare system is not preparing people, because we are not screening. Everyone says “prevention is better than cure”; where is the preventive medicine? Where is the preventive healthcare? There is no major infrastructure for preventive medicine in the country. So, when people hear that they have cancer, because they have not been educated about it, they panic. People need to know that it’s not witchcraft.
Everyone is at risk of developing cancer. The next step is, putting resources and infrastructure together to sustain our people. We should have a national screening service. If we can screen a large number of people and we catch those at risk early and intervene early, then we need a treatment centre for them. Thirdly, we need to create dedicated cancer care centres that are fully equipped. Our teaching hospitals are already overwhelmed trying to treat every other ailment. It might take a while to build cancer screening and treatment centres, in the meantime, government can partner with NGOs that are already doing this. NGOs should also identify major stakeholders like religious organisations, community leaders, market women associations and partner with them to create awareness and do screening. Corporate organisations can also look into cancer care for Corporate Social Responsibility.
Your foundation is achieving success; there might be other NGOs out there that are at a loss on how to go about this. So, what strategies have you employed to make this work?
At first, we were doing radio jingles, but we realised that it was not working because the average Nigerian does not think that cancer concerns him/ her. So, we moved on to new strategies and they are working. One of those strategies is seminars. We organise seminars for 1 hour or more to educate people on these cancers. We also have celebrity advocates for each month. We build the awareness around their celebrity status and this gives us a lot of millage. For the month of January, our celebrity advocate was Kate Henshaw and she really brought in a lot of support using her Instagram page with over 1 million followers to create awareness. We also look for corporate partners that can endorse this project. We don’t just approach them for support. We try to build relationships with them over time.