Eno Essien: Life After Cancer
Words By – Yemisi Suleiman
In honuor of breast cancer awareness month, we speak with Eno Essien, Managing Director and CEO of Rheytrak, a Vehicle Tracking and Recovery company in Nigeria, who is a cancer survivor and an inspiring young woman who fought life with a positive attitude.
For Ms. Essien, raising awareness about breast cancer holds a special place in her heart and her voice has not been silent since overcoming the killer disease. She has spoken in many fora, using her testimony to rekindle hope in people who have lost hope.
Eno who is the only female CEO in the vehicle tracking industry, shares her cancer story, life after survival, career heights and more.
How old were you when you were diagnosed and what was the diagnosis?
I was 30years old and the diagnosis was breast cancer of the breast.
How did you feel when you were first diagnosed, physically and psychologically?
I felt a lump in my breast and after a series of investigations, I had a biopsy done. The histology result came in. I remember that early Wednesday morning when a pastor friend came in, my mother and the pastor sat me down and told me that the lab result was out, and that the lump was cancerous. I was consumed with fear. I was numb. I went blank. At the time, I didn’t know people survived cancer so that made it worse. I was in shock; in fact, I died, but God strengthened me.
Who, what, or where did you turn to?
Those were days of roller coasters of emotions. It became clear to me that I had to turn to God, trust Him and believe every promise in my bible. My upbringing as a Christian and my faith in the Lord, saw me through the dark and uncertain days that followed.
I bought a new 4 in 1 translation bible and that turned out to be one of the best decisions I took. I was able to read those promises in different translations and that gave me a better understanding of them. The only option I had was to have faith.
So yes, faith, the mustard-like faith in God was my anchor.
How did your family take the news of your diagnosis?
My family is the absolute best. They have been my strength, extremely supportive. They held my hands and walked with me. They gave me more strength, courage, and support than I could have asked for. They relocated with me to England. My mom was doing her Ph.D. at the University of Lagos (UNILAG) then and she gave it all up for me.
There was never a day I went to the hospital alone even if it was for a blood test. My family was with me throughout and kept all my hospital appointments with me. I believe they were even more drained than I was, having to care for me. I have the best family ever. They have never left me even to this day. The sickness brought us even closer
We know that a mammogram is the best test to make an early diagnosis of breast cancer but many women are scared because they think it is very painful. What was your experience like?
I would not say a mammogram is painful, I would rather say a mammogram is uncomfortable. I was told that Mammograms are usually done on women aged 40years and above, this made it difficult for me to get one done in Lagos. All the centers kept refusing to do one on me despite telling them about the lumps I had.
Because my family and I wanted the best care and based on advice from the surgeon in Lagos, within two weeks of getting the diagnosis, we were out of Nigeria and off to England for medicare. My elder sister who is British by birth, lives in England so that was the first choice. We met with one of the best breast surgeons in England who incidentally is a Nigerian. He gave us a run down on the way the treatment would go.
I had a lumpectomy, the lump, the surrounding tissues and the lymph nodes suspected to have been infiltrated by the tumor were removed. This was followed by chemotherapy and radiotherapy. The chemotherapy agent is quite toxic and probably the worst thing you can do to the human body. We said no to it. My mum was vehement about it, she said it was a bad gamble, which will be too destructive for me to be subjected to.
You see, medicine is practiced differently in some places. They did not dismiss us nor become angry with us. They assembled their entire team, surgeon, oncologist, nurses, everyone and invited my family and I and painstakingly educated us. Yes it was toxic, yes it was destructive but medicine has made a lot of improvement and moved forward from the last we knew of it. They showed us why what they were offering us was the best option, so at last we agreed and we started on the chemotherapy.
The treatment was terrible. I lost all my hair, all my nails came out from the nail bed, my tongue was black, eating became an impossible task, I suffered neuropathy. It was so bad that I was unable to sleep on the bed. I would fill the bath tub with water and sleep inside it over night and then have my family members take turns to check up on me so I don’t drown.
Drinking water was such a challenge. It was a difficult unforgettable experience. But the Grace of the Almighty God saw me through.
Medicine keeps advancing and now people take chemotherapy without experiencing all the sickness, pain and torture I went through which is fantastic.
What kinds of things did you do to distract yourself when you were going through treatments, either at home or at the hospital?
The breast surgeon had hammered on how important it was for me to try to live a normal life, so I stayed as happy as I could most of the time, and did a lot of fun things with my family. They took me on boat cruises and several adventures and fun places. We did a lot of retail therapy too. Cancer made me a happier person and so I focused on living and loving.
The only thing I was not allowed to do was travel outside of the UK, to avoid contracting any kind of infection.
We know that about 10% of all breast cancers are hereditary. Was that the case with you?
No, mine wasn’t hereditary; no one in my family lineage ahead of me and after me has ever had cancer.
In your opinion do you think Nigeria is doing enough in terms of creating awareness and treatment for breast cancer, if not what would you suggest?
A lot of work is being done in creating awareness, it’s an ongoing thing. I did not take my treatment in Nigeria so, it will be unfair for me to comment based on the unpleasant stories I hear without having experienced what goes on.
What was your biggest challenge during the entire cancer ordeal?
That would have to be the cost of treatment. It was a really very expensive treatment and I was treated in the United Kingdom as a private fee-paying patient; so you can imagine the cost. I don’t know which kills faster between the sickness and the bills. Extremely expensive as it was, the good Lord provided, He doesn’t fail. My family and I footed the bills with a few good friends. I spoke to the hospital and negotiated a payment plan and they were extremely supportive. But when you are scheduled for any appointment or procedure, you better show up with the payment receipt. Yes, it was very expensive but not more expensive than my life.
At what point did Rheytrak come to be?
Rheytrak was founded in 2007. I was already in business for about 6 years when I got the diagnosis. Thankfully, I had built a structure so the business ran exceptionally well in my absence. My team, headed by my Business Development Manager did fantastically.
How has it been over the years?
I have been living and trying to make an impact. I have been able to reach out to quite a number of afflicted people, both the patients and their relatives within and outside the country.
I have given them all the information at my disposal, my experience, what treatment they can access, cost estimates, and all kinds of support.
By God’s grace, I have overcome this killer disease and my voice has not been silent.
I have been invited to speak in many fora and a lot of people who had lost hope have rekindled their hope, hearing from me and seeing me.
Also, people have appreciated and encouraged me; for instance, the Nigerian Stock Exchange invited me to ring the closing bell in commemoration of World Cancer Day in February. This is something I really treasure as this recognition placed me in a special position.
You see, 30 years ago, my dad, then the Editor of the now rested National Concord newspaper rang the Exchange closing bell. We made history as the first father and daughter to perform the ceremonial bell ringing in Nigeria. Recently, on the 33rd anniversary of my state, Akwa Ibom, the State recognized and celebrated us for being the first father and daughter to do this. So, I can say, God made all things to work for my good. He turned the bad situation for my good. I killed cancer by God’s grace instead of it killing me.
Who or what is your biggest inspiration in life?
God Almighty, myself, my journey.
My family; my parents and my siblings and the amazing bond we share.
I am inspired by the several stories of strong, powerful, successful women ahead of me.
You are obviously very fashionable, what does fashion mean to you and how would you describe your dress sense?
Fashion is about showing your identity. It is the first thing people look at to interpret who you are. It shows what choices you make, what type of person you are and shows the world what you stand for. It gives a glimpse into someone’s personality. It’s how you differentiate yourself from other people. Ultimately, it is an individual’s statement of self-expression. Fashion is what I’m comfortable in. Comfort is key. I wear clothes that suit my body type. My style is simple and easy.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I read books. Watch movies and religious programmes. I cook. I spend time with my family.
Where are you now in your journey with Cancer?
This is eight years later. I am totally healed and whole and I know that when the Lord heals, He heals completely.
What advice would you give to anybody facing cancer or any life-threatening illness?
First of all, just breathe, you will be fine. You are sick and should go to the hospital. That is the only place people with sickness are treated. That is why hospitals are built. Then back up the treatment with prayers. Have faith and believe that you will overcome and stay there because a double-minded man will not receive. Rather than google about the disease, search your Bible for healing scriptures. When you do start treatment, please cut your hair. Seeing my hair fall was difficult. Stay happy because your strong spirit will see you through this infirmity.
You can also reach out to me, I am happy to hold your hand and walk the journey with you as I have done with so many women.