Saving lives through early cervical cancer detection

In Kenya, 5,250 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year, with 3,286 of them dying of the disease, usually detected when it is almost too late

Until her diagnosis in July, 2013, Rose Chiedo knew very little about cervical cancer. She just had a hazy understanding of the disease based on scanty information gathered from the media. Yet, there she was: clueless and about to confront an illness, which, at stage 2b, was silently ravaging her body.

Prior to the diagnosis, spotting between periods and having a pungent discharge for three months prompted Chiedo to seek medical attention. At first, doctors conducted a urinalysis test and prescribed antibiotics. The discharge ceased for a while and then recurred once she completed her medication. When Chiedo went back to hospital for the second time, doctors prescribed stronger antibiotics, but even then the discharge persisted.

On her third visit, the doctors recommended that she undergoes a pap smear and cervical cancer was detected. She was advised to start treatment immediately. Rose, jobless at the time and without a source of income, opted to go for cheaper treatment at Kenyatta National Hospital even though it meant getting on the waiting list for a whole year.

“There were over 1,000 other patients waiting to access cancer treatment. I had no other option, but to wait,” she says.

A single chemotherapy session at Kenyatta Hospital would cost Sh500, and between Sh8,000 and Sh10,000 in private hospitals. Thanks to an employee at the hospital, Chiedo was lucky to get booked for treatment eight months after the diagnosis.

“I had started bleeding heavily and my case was handled like an emergency,” she adds.

With financial support from her brother, she underwent 25 chemotherapy and six radiotherapy sessions that lasted six weeks. She, however, had to delay her brekkie therapy — an internal form of radiotherapy scheduled for three weeks after the initial treatment- because of financial constraints.

After completing her treatment in 2015, subsequent CT scans showed that the cancer had cleared. She got back on her feet and for two years, she volunteered as a cancer navigator with Women 4 Cancer Organisation, showing patients their way around KNH and helping them with the treatment processes.

The disease recurred in 2018, this time, stage three- forcing Chiedo to undergo a second round of treatment, which ended in November last year. As she awaits the doctor’s report, she is hopeful that the cancer is gone for good.

Dr Ann Ng’ang’a, ministry head of the National Cancer Control Programme, says cervical cancer accounts for an estimated 11 per cent of all new cancer cases in the country, currently at 48,000 every year. The disease is mainly caused by human papilloma virus, which is sexually transmitted.

“It’s a common infection among men and women. In men the virus rarely develops into cancer, but in women it may eventually lead to cervical cancer,” she says.

A majority of women are able to fight off the virus, but in case one has a low immunity, HPV develops into cervical cancer. Chances of developing the diseases increases with lifestyle choices such as smoking, poor diet, lack of exercise and multiple sexual partners.

Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable types of cancers since its cause is known and it takes a longer time- 10-15 years- to develop. Since it has no symptoms in its initial stages, many women are diagnosed when it’s too late.

If detected early HPV is treatable. There is a HPV vaccine mainly administered to girls aged 12-13 before their sexual debut to protect them from the virus.

Ann advises women to attend regular cervical cancer screening for early detection and treatment.

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