LOUD WHISPERS: Cervical Cancer Month

When I was young, my mother and her sisters used to talk about a cousin of theirs who passed away when she was in her prime. She was a beautiful young woman who was loved by everyone, and she suddenly became ill, an illness that claimed her life. According to the story, she was the victim of a spiritual attack. Whatever spell they placed on her caused her vagina to rot and smell, and it was speculated that she had turned down the advances of a ‘powerful enemy’ who decided to teach her a lesson. I thought about the tragic death of the poor woman for many years, till it eventually dawned on me that she was not the victim of the work of ‘village people’. According to how her symptoms were described, she probably had Cervical Cancer. This happened at least 50 years ago. I wish I could say that in this day and age, no one would say a woman in that condition was suffering from a ‘spiritual attack’ but, sadly, that is not the case.

January is Cervical Cancer month. Cervical cancer is a malignant tumour of the cervix, the lowermost part of the uterus. The Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), which is transmitted via vaginal, oral or anal intercourse, is known to cause almost all cervical cancers. It often takes years for an HPV infection to develop into cancer.  The symptoms of cervical cancer include vaginal bleeding between periods, heavy menstrual bleeding, painful intercourse or bleeding after as well as a change in vaginal discharge. If untreated, it can slowly spread out of the cervix and into surrounding tissue and organs. By the time this happens, the patient is in serious trouble. A Pap Smear is used to screen for HPV which causes cervical cancer. The screening can also detect other Sexually Transmitted Infections.

A few years ago, I was giving a talk to a group of mostly middle-aged, educated women. The discussion got round to talking about healthy living. I asked the group how many of them had ever had a Mammogram. In a room of up to 50 participants, only 18 put up their hands. I then followed up with a question about a Pap Smear. Only three put up their hands. Some even asked what a Pap Smear was, which I got a Nurse in the group to elaborate on. I was scandalized. These were women who mostly had means and access, some routinely travelled outside the country.

 An estimated 47 million women and girls aged 15 years and older are at risk of developing cervical cancer in Nigeria. Fortunately, there is now an HPV vaccine, which can be administered to girls before they become sexually active. With the existence of this vaccine, it is now possible to totally eliminate cervical cancer, not just prevent it. In October 2023, Nigeria introduced the HPV vaccine into its routine immunization programs. The target is 7.7 million girls within the shortest time possible. With this plan in place, girls aged 9-14 years will receive a single dose of the vaccine. According to figures from WHO and UNICEF, cervical cancer is the third most common cancer and the second most frequent cause of cancer deaths among women aged 15-44 years. In 2020 (the last year for which data was available) Nigeria recorded 12,000 new cases of cervical cancer and 8,000 deaths.

These deaths are mostly preventable. With the availability of a vaccine, it is important to ensure access for all those who need to have it. Some ignorant people have been trying to sabotage efforts at getting the vaccines to girls (and boys) claiming that the vaccines will encourage promiscuity. In their own understanding, giving adolescents such a vaccine equates a license for them to go out and have sex. This is nonsense. The global and local health authorities who have been managing the distribution of the vaccine have given assurances of its safety till they tell us otherwise. There has been ‘Vaccine Hesitancy’ with every new vaccine known to us, for example COVID19. We can however not endanger the lives of women and girls by preventing access to something that could save their lives. 8,000 deaths a year is the equivalent of 80 aircraft crashing with approximately 100 people on board.

When I turned 35, I started getting letters from the National Health Service (NHS) in London, advising me to present myself for screening. The first time I went, I found it so uncomfortable and invasive that I almost swore never to go back again. Common sense prevailed and I did not stop my regular checks, though it must be noted that the screening methods have improved significantly over the years. Why do I keep going for these uncomfortable checks? Why do I go to get my breasts squeezed by a huge, cold Mammogram machine every year? It is not just because I can afford it. All of the women I spoke about above could afford it. I go because health is wealth and it is a priority for me. Illness can wipe out your wealth in weeks. If you know someone who has strange symptoms, encourage them to see a medical doctor. The Pastors and Imams can play a role, but seek medical intervention first. Prevention is better than cure. Please get your daughters the HPV Vaccine. Get yourself screened. If pre-cancerous cells are detected, it can easily be treated. Please don’t wait till your family and friends have to start crowd-funding for you. All cancers are deadly but not a death sentence if caught on time. Cervical cancer can be detected with regular screening. If you are in a position to do so, sponsor the HPV vaccine for girls in your community or support cervical cancer screening.

I belong to First Ladies against Cancer, a coalition of current and former Governors’ wives working to address gaps in cancer prevention and treatment. Our advocacy covers cancer awareness, policy frameworks and implementation, care for cancer patients and community sensitisation. This month FLAC members have carried out a range of activities in their States. We are passionate about cancer issues because not only are some of us survivors, there is no one who has not been affected in one way or the other. Cancer does not know the rich from the poor, the low from the mighty. Yes, money might buy some time but as we say in Yoruba, ‘Oju ma nti owo’, ‘Sometimes money is put to shame’. Let us keep holding our leaders accountable for qualitative and quantitative healthcare. Let us protect our daughters and ourselves from this scourge.  Cervical cancer can be a thing of the past with the vaccine, just like Polio was beaten down to the barest minimum. I will not be missing on my days of joy. Please say and mean the prayer for yourself. Get vaccinated. Get screened. Get treated.

Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Policy Advocate and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She can be reached at BAF@abovewhispers.com

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3 Responses to LOUD WHISPERS: Cervical Cancer Month

  1. Maryam February 2, 2024 at 6:41 pm

    Thanks for this

    Reply
  2. Iyanuoluwa Isinkaye February 2, 2024 at 6:49 pm

    very enlightening

    Reply
  3. Ibukunoluwa February 2, 2024 at 7:20 pm

    Really Informative. Thank you

    Reply

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