Cancer screening saved our lives from the jaws of death — survivors speak

Monday, February 26th, 2024 10:30 | By
Benda Kithaka, Executive Director at Kilele Health Association, an organisation that offers hope to cancer survivors through initiatives and programmes that empower both patients and their caregivers. PHOTO/Print

Pamela Savai is nothing, but a grateful person for fighting a tough war against one of the most dreaded diseases in the world, cancer.

In 2019, Pamela was diagnosed with cervical cancer. It all started as a normal screening during cancer awareness month where doctors noticed something abnormal on her cervix. They then sent her to undergo a papsmear, with which they discovered an unusual growth.

After undertaking a biopsy, her worst fears were confirmed as doctors discovered that the unusual growth was actually cancerous and that she had cervical cancer. But good news was that, it was only on stage one.

“I was very lucky because it was still early and the doctors assured me that I had 100 per cent chances of being cured. It took me two months to do all those tests. I really thank God and the doctor that was assisting me because it went at a very good speed. I know people who take six months or even a year to reach the treatment stage,” she says.

After series of treatment and surgeries, she was finally declared to be cancer-free, thereby joining long list of women who beat cervical cancer after being diagnosed early.

It is at this point that she decided to start advocacy and cancer awareness with a key emphasis on early screening because that is what saved her life. “I was not sick when I went to the facility for screening. Most of the time, cervical cancer does not have symptoms and when it reaches a stage where you see some signs, then it is at an advanced stage and probably has spread to other parts of the body,” she explains.

Harsh treatment

Pamela adds “At that point, treatment is harsh because you have to go through chemotherapy and radiotherapy and among other procedures. It is also costly. This is what keeps our women away from going for treatment because it is costly. They do not have money and resources to pay for medication when cancer is at an advanced stage,”

When detected early, Pamela says cervical cancer is treatable and one does not have to go through the harsh treatment.

Despite being declared cancer free, she constantly goes for checkup to make sure any chances of recurrance are discovered early.

“This is my fifth year being cancer free and I hope I will be declared free from even chances of recurring. My doctors say if it gets to five years and still there is nothing, I could be off the hook for life,” she says.

While Pamela was lucky to have had an early diagnosis and easy treatment procedure, it was a different situation for Jane Kabaki, an international lawyer and stage four-cancer survivor. In 2020, Kabaki had a fall and injured her arm and the pain seem not to go away as it  persisted for days.

Kabaki brushed off the pains and even blamed her aging self since she was in her 50s. In October, as the country was slowly going back to normalcy after months of shut down due to Covid-19, she decided to go for cancer screening, just to be sure of her health as she believed that as she was growing old, she was bound to face some health challenges and did not want any surprises.

 After screening and series of testing, Kabaki was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. “It was so devastating and did not talk about it to my family. I just kept quiet. I had been informed that stage four only requires palliative care and I was really scared about being in that situation. My doctor, however convinced me to take active treatment and I decided to give it a try,” she recounts.

On January 2021, she started her therapy journey.  But, her condition remained a guarded secret between her and some of her immediate family because she was afraid of facing stigma and pity-party from outside.

Suppport system

She could not even tell her university-student daughter as she was afraid she could drop out of school and go home to take care of her ailing mother. For almost a year, she underwent chemotherapy, then radical mastectomy and later radiation treatment, which were all done in Kenya. “It was a very devastating time and for a long time, I could not talk about it. I felt like speaking about my condition was giving cancer some life and did not want that. I did not want to acknowledge that there was a possibility I could die… and die a painful death,” she reveals. She then opted to join Faraja Cancer Support Centre to reinforce her support system and further find safe space where she could speak about her situation without any fears of being stigmatised.

“When I joined this group, I found so many other people going through it. Most importantly, I met a woman who had two breast cancer incidences and survived. In her 70s she was once again diagnosed with cervical cancer and survived it again. This gave me hope and courage to keep living,” Kabaki says. For the first time, Kabaki felt she could beat cancer and that ignited her hope and by end of 2022, she could openly talk about her cancer journey and even informed her daughter. Despite the cancer being discovered at stage four, she was declared cancer free last August and some of the medications were withdrawn. Having survived the threat, Kabaki turned her efforts to championing for frequent screening and early diagnosis as the only way to save Kenyan women from cancer deaths.  “I talk about my experience. I advocate for medical justice, knowledge and abilities at the policy level and at the grassroots. My satisfaction is being able to tell someone that it is possible to heal, no matter what stage it is in,” she states.

Both Pamela and Kabaki insist on screening for all types of cancer, saying it played a major role in their treatment journey. Having both discovered their cancer status through voluntary screening, Kabaki says there is need for the government to channel all its efforts towards screening and early diagnosis. She says free screening will push women from all walks of life to know their cancer status and further ensure early detection.

Screening as a solution

“Screening is  the most important part in this fight. We can change the narrative, we need more advocacy towards this goal for people to believe it is possible,” Kabaki says.

According to Ministry of Health’s Acting Director General, Dr Patrick Amoth, Kenya lags behind in meeting World Health Organisation(WHO) goal to eliminate cervical cancer by 2030. Amoth says there is still a huge ground to cover in terms of screening as only 38 per cent of Kenyan women have been screened for cervical cancer, against the 70 per cent goal. In Africa, he says cervical cancer is still a significant public health challenge, with many women succumbing every year, with the burden particularly heavy where access to quality healthcare services is often limited, and awareness about cervical cancer prevention is insufficient.

“In Kenya, we have a long way to go in terms of screening because we are at 38 per cent. Many women are diagnosed at an  advanced-stage of cervical cancer, when treatment options are limited, and survival rates are low. It is imperative that we embrace the worldwide vaccination of young girls, screening and treating of cervical cancer diagnosed women under the 90-70-90 per cent strategy and work tirelessly towards its realisation,” says Amoth. Kilele Health Association Executive Director, Benda Kithaka says one way of meeting the WHO target is by reaching out to women in the far-flung places and this can only be achieved by working with community-based organisations, who are closer to the people and at a better position to create awareness on cancer in communities.

“Civil societies are the direct link to our communities and know where the shoe is pinching. So when we train them on accessing the cancer situation in the community, they are at a better place to measure what is happening and bring evidence that can inform decision making at the policy level,” she adds.

Already, some civil societies have been trained on how to gather evidence from the communities that they could table before decision makers to influence policy making and also how to report on data that is relevant because it speaks to issues in communities.

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