Project Pink Blue: Fighting cancer through increasing awareness, screening, advocacy and patient navigation

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Published: 18 Jun 2019
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Runcie C.W. Chidebe - Executive Director, Project PINK BLUE

Mr Runcie C.W. Chidebe speaks to ecancer at the 2019 American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Annual Meeting about Project Pink Blue, which is an organisation that focuses on cancer awareness, screening, advocacy and patient navigation in Nigeria.

He describes the main successes this initiative has achieved so far in Nigeria and through international collaborations also.

Mr Chidebe also discusses the future direction for Project Pink Blue, which includes participating in more research, while increasing knowledge among the population.

Project Pink Blue is actually a cancer fighting organisation engaged in cancer awareness, provision of free cancer screening and also engaged in advocacy. We’re engaged in some great behavioural research as well as patient navigation and we also are the founder of Abuja Breast Cancer Support Group which is the first support group in the city, in Abuja. Through this support group we have been helping cancer patients, we’ve have been working very hard to put a human face to cancer because especially in Nigeria and in so many African countries cancer really doesn’t have a face. So people need to start seeing people who survived this disease, people who are living with this disease, and get to understand their own experience.

So we founded the Abuja Breast Cancer Support Group as a support group helping people living with metastatic disease, people living with early cancer and all the rest. Right now we’re trying to move the support group to a network of other support groups across the country. So this is essentially what Project Pink Blue has been engaged in.

What are the main successes that you have achieved so far?

I must really say we’ve been able to really change the way so many Nigerians think about cancer across the country because we’ve had programmes that run not just in Abuja, in the city, but also in Lagos, but also in Enugu, also in different parts of the country. We have been doing this through awareness and we’ve really realised that awareness is all over, people are really aware of cancer, Nigerians are aware of cancer. But the thing is that so many people are not accurately aware of cancer, these are two different things. You can really know or you can be aware that cancer is a killer disease, that’s awareness, right? But if you are really aware you will also know that people also survive cancer. You know your risk factors, you know about your family history, you know about what you need to do in terms of lifestyle changes and all the rest. So this is what we do especially, not just create awareness but to create awareness accurately, changing the way people think about cancer in a local and culturally adaptable way.

So we translate materials, we work with [...] come in and translating materials from English to local languages as well. We’ve also done videos, documentaries, to educate our community about what they need to do. Some of the flagship programmes we have really done in the past that have really been of great and remarkable success have always been the World Cancer Day. So every year we mobilise over 5,000 people to walk on the streets in Abuja as World Cancer Day and then in Lagos as Pink October. It has really been remarkable because many people just look forward to it; many people have used the World Cancer Day as their own annual screening because we don’t have national screening in Nigeria so people have to rely on sporadic screenings to really be able to get screened for cancer.

Another very remarkable success we’ve achieved is when we implemented the Upgrade Oncology. It’s really a very innovative programme because we realised the gap that is in when you create awareness and then people turn up with cancer, then when they get treated and they don’t get the better care. So my board decided to implement a programme known as Upgrade Oncology. Upgrade Oncology was a medical oncology training so instead of taking Nigerian doctors from Nigeria to the US or to Europe and otherwise we actually brought the American doctors from the US to Nigeria because it’s more sustainable, it gives greater return on investment. That project was really, really, really, really successful because we brought two medical oncologists from the US and then to Nigeria and they trained about 44 radiation oncologists and surgeons. I’m very excited right now because most of the doctors in Nigeria, doctors in the US, have connected and they are really doing a lot of work, implementing some research work and stuff like that.

Other successes are our other programmes that we’ve done for patients. We launched the first patient navigation programme in Nigeria and right now the programme is gradually tilting other communities. And Pink October, so many of them that we’ve really been able to use to change the narrative of cancer care. Most importantly my organisation, in collaboration with other organisations, pushed for a major change, policy change, in Nigeria. We don’t have what we call an Institute for Cancer or an agency for cancer so what we did was to work with the legislators and the President just signed a bill to establish a National Institute for Cancer Research and Treatment, which is also very remarkable.

Right now what we are really working towards is to see how we can increase our capacity in research. If you look around and try to search for many information, especially about cancer in Nigeria, in Africa, there is a very strong deficit of research in that community. And the population, cancer is increasing in the population so there is a need for us to really do more research to know what we can do to reduce the impact of this burden. And also what we can do to increase the knowledge base of our people. I really want to share something with you – right now so many people are coming up with this form of cancer known as Kaposi sarcoma which is a coinfection that could also come from HIV/AIDS and stuff like that and also liver cancer which is induced from hepatitis. So these are very strong areas that we need to do research on and get to know what we can do to reduce this burden. So this is really our vision for the future.

One thing I really want to say is if you look at maybe statistics, look at cancer registries in the past, you really see that when you compare cancer burden, when you compare cancer burden in Nigeria and in some African countries several years ago and you compare the burden this year and you look at the burden in other parts of the world, especially in some Western countries, you realise that the cancer burden is really high in so many Western countries. But the deaths, the cancer mortality is fairly the same, even more. So that’s really to tell you the deficit in screening, in early detection, in treatment outcomes and capacity of the professionals. So these are really very strong issues and it’s not just a challenge just for people who are from Nigeria but I think it’s a global challenge. We can’t be talking about global equity and access to medicine if we don’t consider also all the people who are in low and middle income countries.

So I also want to make a call to everyone, scientists, pharma companies, everyone, to really understand that for us to achieve global equity in healthcare we have to consider people also living in low and middle income countries. You see, a breast cancer patient in Dallas and a breast cancer patient in Lisbon and a breast cancer patient in Lagos is the same, the only difference is having access to care, being able to afford this care and availability of this care. This is what we need to close if we really want to make global differences in cancer care. Otherwise people will continue to die of this disease.