African cancer support group in Calgary looks to fund growth in services

Yinka Odalede started the African Cancer Support Group after her husband was diagnosed in 2017.  (Dan McGarvey/CBC - image credit)
Yinka Odalede started the African Cancer Support Group after her husband was diagnosed in 2017. (Dan McGarvey/CBC - image credit)

A support group for Africans in Calgary is helping that community deal with the stigma around a cancer diagnosis and the difficult journey that involves, while helping save lives through education about the disease.

Yinka Oladele says there's a huge stigma around discussing cancer in the African community. She says people can feel alienated receiving mainstream health care and support services that don't take their cultural needs into account.

She's on a mission to change that.

The idea for a specialist support group, the African Cancer Support Group, came to Oladele in 2017, following her husband's multiple myeloma diagnosis.

She also lost her mother to breast cancer in 1995.

"In our community, people don't talk about cancer until it's late or when they are dead," said Oladele.

"We realized that so many things were missing. There was a gap and we couldn't get information or resources," she said.

"We're trying to destigmatize cancer. We try to bring education, awareness, culturally appropriate resources and information to people."

Dan McGarvey/CBC
Dan McGarvey/CBC

Oladele says her group works to bridge the gaps between the hospital, the community and patients.

"When they go for treatment, chemo, when they get home, some of them can't do anything for two or three days, and we help them. We put food in their fridge so when they get home the fridge is there for them. We clean their homes and we offer things the hospital doesn't offer."

Oladele's group visits patients at home, bringing African food along with religious and emotional support.

That includes education and awareness, different complementary therapies and mental health support, by psychotherapists and registered counsellors.

"You are able to talk to someone who is from your community, who understands where you're coming from," Oladele said.

The group is about offering something different and much more tailored to the community than mainstream support services.

"The first thing you see when you go to conventional support groups is you would be the only coloured person in there," said Bayo Oladele, Yinka's husband and a cancer survivor.

"Those groups are not used to coloured people and the programs might not be completely adequate for an African man or woman," he said.

Dan McGarvey/CBC
Dan McGarvey/CBC

Bayo Oladele says the emotional support, material support and community contact and cultural awareness is lacking compared to what his own community can offer.

"They might say things in a different way, but not in a way that I, as an African man, understand what they're talking about," he said.

The African Cancer Support Group, which falls under The Oladele Foundation — a charitable not-for-profit foundation Yinka Oladele created — also celebrates cancer survivors, as well as helping them.

It's hosting a special event on June 3 at the Sheraton Cavalier Hotel in northeast Calgary as part of National Cancer Survivor Month.

"You don't have to celebrate people when they're gone, you can celebrate every moment of going through their cancer journey. We celebrate hope, resilience and courage for people going through the journey," said Oladele.

"It's such a lonely journey, and when you survive it, it's a cause for celebration."

Oladele says the purpose of the event is to increase awareness of survival, educate the African community and break the walls of silence and secrecy, while being thankful and bringing survivors together to talk about their experiences.

Cancer survivor Florence Omara came into contact with Oladele in 2018.

"Nobody wants to talk about it, but as a breast cancer survivor, I saw how lonely it was. Even my best friends didn't know I was sick because nobody talks about cancer in our community," she said.

Omara says most Africans don't have the support network of an extended family, so volunteers and support groups are a lifeline.

Dan McGarvey/CBC
Dan McGarvey/CBC

'I had food brought into my house, proper African food. I had someone to clean for me, I had a lot of help, people calling me and encouraging me. This has become like my family now."

Dr. Levi Omara, Florence Omara's husband, says the African community needs to start talking more about prevention and awareness.

"Men of 50 years need a PSA (prostate-specific antigen test) and that's critical information, to check your PSA," said Omara.

"It needs more work, people don't know, and some people don't test themselves at all," he said. "It's very important."

Yinka Oladele says she hopes launching her foundation will help to continue and expand the supports and education she can offer her community.

Her group is seeking partners and more financial assistance to make this possible.

She says her next goal is recruiting and training more volunteers.