Breast cancer has had a tremendous impact on Ebele Mbanugo’s life. At one point a few years ago, her mother and two of her aunts were diagnosed with the disease, and while watching her family go through such a major struggle, she was inspired to do something to help. She put together a breast cancer awareness run in her native Lagos, Nigeria to raise the funds to provide a mammogram machine for a hospital in the city in the hopes of making screenings more widely available. That first run eventually turned into the Run for a Cure Africa Breast Cancer Foundation, an organization that now seeks to save lives not only in Nigeria, but also in other parts of the continent, including Ghana and Cameroon.
Inspired and motivated to take her attempts at increasing awareness further, she ended up entering the third annual Astellas Oncology C3 Prize this year, a global challenge that rewards “innovative non-treatment ideas that may improve the lives of cancer patients, caregivers, and their loved ones.” This year’s focus was on low and middle-income countries hit hard by cancer. She ended up being the grand prize winner, and was awarded $50,000 to bring her idea, a digital audio series that addresses myths and the barriers that have a negative impact on breast cancer treatment in Nigeria, to life.
Knowing the way this disease has affected Mbanugo’s loved ones, and many in her city, she is on a mission to fight as hard as she can against breast cancer, as well as the stigmas surrounding it. We talked to her about her digital series, how the idea for it came about, and why breast cancer awareness is so integral everywhere, but especially in Nigeria.
MadameNoire: I know your mother and a couple of aunts were diagnosed with breast cancer. How did that reality turn from worry into action, particularly with creating the Run for a Cure Africa Breast Cancer Foundation in Lagos? Did your mother and aunts overcome their bouts with breast cancer?
Ebele Mbanugo: In 2008, my aunt who had been diagnosed with colon cancer in the same month my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer was losing her battle. My cousin, her only child, was told to take my aunt home so she could spend her last Christmas among family. The thought of being told this same thing shook me with a paralyzing fear. Grateful that my mother (at the time) seemed to be beating her cancer, I wanted a way to tell God ‘thank you’ for sparing my mother’s life. So I decided to start a breast cancer awareness run so I could raise money to buy a mammogram for a deserving hospital. That way women in Nigeria could get screened for free. This program grew into an organization that now has a presence in Nigeria, Ghana, and Cameroon. We have been fortunate to provide this life-saving exercise for nearly 10,000 women in West Africa.
On January 8, 2016, my mother passed away because the breast cancer metastasized to her brain. Although still a very bitter pill for me to swallow, I am comforted by the fact that so many women, just like her, have been helped through this organization. My two other aunts who had breast cancer are still alive today.
How did the idea for your digital audio series come about?
Information is a huge challenge for our patients. Not only accessing the information but understanding the information. We had a patient whom we were able to financially support through her treatment, but halfway through her treatment plan, she decided she felt better and stopped going. Not too long after, her abdomen started to swell and she came back to the hospital – her breast cancer had metastasized. When I spoke to her that afternoon she told me through a great deal of despair that she didn’t understand anything about her cancer diagnosis. She sadly passed away, but I was really affected by the fact that the lack of information and understanding was possibly the reason for her death. On Feb. 4, 2018, we did a flash mob skit in a very busy marketplace in Lagos, Nigeria. The skit was to illustrate the importance of early detection. During the skit, the crowd was completely engrossed and afterwards they were clamoring for information. The idea was born from Nigerians’ penchant for a good story and the need to make breast cancer information culturally sensitive and relevant. And it just so happened that this year’s Astellas C3 Prize was focused on non-treatment cancer care solutions in low and middle-income countries, so it was a great opportunity.
In what ways do you feel like Nigerians need to change the way they learn, talk about and treat breast cancer?
Our experience has been that patients in general in Nigeria are not interactive with their healthcare providers. They tend to not ask questions and are very passive about the role they play in getting better. We have found that this behavior is attributed to not understanding a cancer diagnosis. They do whatever the doctor asks or they simply do not adhere to treatment because they do not understand the necessity or the value of patient adherence. If we are able to contextualize the experience, we believe patients, caregivers and community members will know what kind of questions to ask and how they can play a more active role in their treatment journey.
This was a global challenge that you took first prize in. Why is it important to you to keep the project and those involved with it in Lagos?
That’s right, the Astellas C3 Prize is a global challenge. In fact, this year’s challenge received over 70 entries from 20 countries.
It is of utmost importance to make this information culturally sensitive and relevant. The reaction we got from the audience members in the market was most likely due to the fact that they could see themselves in the characters. This made the information from the skit easier to understand and operationalize. We hope to make a similar series in other African countries based on the success of this Nigerian series.
Have you done any tests to see if you have the BRCA gene that increases susceptibility to breast cancer since your mom’s side of the family seems to have a history with this disease? Or have you taken any other precautions to protect yourself?
Yes, I have taken the BRCA gene test and thankfully, I do not have the gene. However, I present myself for annual mammograms, I check my breasts regularly, and I try with a capital ‘T’ to exercise and eat right. Outside of this, I rely on my faith in God and I just push forward.