The thing about a terminal disease is you never think you’d get it. It never crosses your mind that this virus or these abnormal cancer cells will attack your body forcing you to change everything in your life. You start changing your diet, your lifestyle and even the way you view your life. You become more self aware about your body and how it functions; and even the slightest thing, including a flu, can rattle you to the core.
So what actually makes you want to think about getting checked for some of these ailments? For most people I know, it’s because it runs in their family, some accidentally discover they have the disease (s) when they’re going through routine checks or when they’re getting checked for something else, others don’t discover it until it’s too late and some don’t understand the severity of such diseases. So let’s talk about cervical cancer.
Currently, cervical cancer is the second most common cancer among Kenyan women after breast cancer and according to the Kenya Demographic Health Survey (KDHS) 2014, the annual number of cervical cancer cases is 4,802 and annual number of deaths is 2,451.
Why is this number so high?
As much as cervical cancer is a preventable disease, majority of women don’t get tested for it. One of the main reasons is not only the fact that most women can’t afford it, but also the fact that many of the government health centers unfortunately do not offer the services in the local areas because they do not have the required equipment. Three of the patients I talked to at the free medical camp told me that they were anxiously waiting for the Twaweza Live Free Medical Camp because they couldn’t afford to get checked at a medical facility. As young mothers who didn’t have stable jobs, whatever money they get goes into feeding their babies – so you can only imagine their relief on hearing about the free medical camp in their area.
Two, more than 90% of women are not aware of the HPV virus that causes almost all cases of cervical cancer. They also do not know that it is sexually transmitted as well.
The human papillomavirus, or HPV, is a type of virus that infects the skin and the cells lining body cavities. HPV is a very common infection. Around 8 out of 10 people will be infected with the virus at some point in their lives. It usually doesn’t cause any symptoms and most people will never know they had it.
HPV infection usually causes no problems at all. But in some people the infection will stay around for a long time and become persistent. Around 13 types of HPV can cause cancer. These are called ‘high-risk’ types. People with persistent infections with ‘high-risk’ HPV types are those who are most likely to go on to develop cancer.
The main type of cancer linked to HPV infection is cervical cancer. Virtually all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV.
Third is the case of why should I fix what isn’t broken. Most patients, men and women included do not see the need of seeking treatment when they feel nothing is wrong with them and sadly, that’s how most cancers end up being diagnosed when it’s too late. This results in very little being done and a lot of money being spent to try and fix things.
The actual testing
The test looks for changes in the cells of your cervix.
This isn’t a test for cancer, but can detect abnormal cells that could lead to serious problems like cervical cancer. Symptoms may not be experienced beforehand, until the condition is at an advanced stage.
Abnormal cells are not usually cancerous, especially if you have regular screenings. However, if abnormal cells are noticed at a screening they can be closely observed and/or treated to prevent cancer from developing. Regular screening has been proved to reduce the risk of advanced cancer by 90% on average for women aged 35-64. This age bracket might go until the age of 25 due to lifestyle habits
The first thing you’re told is to relax. For a start, many women are apprehensive about the test itself, which is not like other tests where you just draw blood or pee in a cup. And receiving an abnormal result can be alarming or confusing
The procedure is generally very quick and painless, but might also be momentarily uncomfortable.
The practitioner will ask you to lie on a couch. They will gently insert an instrument called a speculum into your vagina in order to view your cervix. A small brush is used to take a sample. This picks up cells from inside the opening of the cervix. The test only takes a couple of minutes.
This might seem like a lot, and this is just the tip of the iceberg trust me, but what I really loved is the fact that these practitioners will walk with them through the journey including when they get referrals to different hospitals. There’s nothing as scary as going into a doctor’s office (or in this case mobile clinic) and not knowing what results you’ll get.
Also, all is not lost as there are some health facilities and organizations that offer free cancer screening to those people who cannot afford the services. What I know for sure is that the lives of the 169 women tested that day will not be the same thanks to the work of Safaricom Foundation and the Kenya Diabetes Management and Information Centre.