In 2013, Tata Mayaah Evelyn lost her mother to cervical cancer. She admits it was more painful too because her mother did not see her get married and start a family of her own. Her mother passed away after battling with cervical cancer for a while, given that it was not detected early enough.
But Evelyn managed to pick up a lesson from the sad incident, motivated by curiosity and grief. “I was pursuing a different field so when she died began indulging in research and knowing more and studying about cervical cancer and I came to realise that she died of something that was preventable and could be treated if it was captured early enough,” she says.
Her discoveries about the disease, she says, prompted her to engage in advocacy, to spread the word and save many others from the situation in which her mother and loved ones found themselves.
Evelyn now serves as Executive Director and Health Advocate for Humanity at Heart International Association. Located in the South West region, Humanity at Heart conducts multiple outreach initiatives in remote localities, sensitising residents about cervical cancer and the importance of early testing. It also links them up with different healthcare facilities as well as provides to them up-to-date information on cervical cancer.
Through the body, Evelyn is driving for a change in her society, but admits it is not a walk in the park.
“There are a lot of barriers we see in rural communities… We have low health literacy in communities because we don’t have people who descend into the rural suburbs to create awareness,” she says.
But that, to Evelyn is not the biggest challenge yet: “One of the constraints too we have is finance. Because when you create awareness they need to move to a health facility to get screened. They need to pay for that screening and you see that the rural women, even an average Cameroonian cannot afford maybe 10,000 FCFA to get screened talk less of getting treated maybe at 50,000 FCFA or 100,000 FCFA that has to do with precancerous legions.”
When cervical cancer becomes invasive and requires millions to control, many she notes, consider it as the end. In addition to the financial constraints, Evelyn says adverse cultural beliefs are not making matters any easier especially in the rural communities they visit.
“The health systems are not very robust in rural communities,” she says, “so it is a lot of constraint for them to be able to have these sophisticated facilities to get screened.”
Beating the stigma
Like with most terminal diseases and medical conditions not well understood, cervical cancer continues to be surrounded by stigma. Advocates note that this too is another reason for a high incidence of cervical cancer related deaths in Cameroon where it is the second most common form of cancer.
“People will think that if you have cervical cancer it is a form of witchcraft, you have been bewitched and they think you have to go to a witchdoctor. For Christians they would want to go to a pastor,” says the Humanity at Heart Executive Director.
Advocates and health personnel in this regard, continue to encourage vaccination against the HP virus which often leads to the disease.
To Manjuh Florence, Supervisor of the CBC Health Services Women Programme, despite the difficult situation of cost too, there have been marked improvements over the past years. This she explains, is due to the work of stakeholders who seek to reduce the cost of vaccines and treatments for the sake of Cameroonians.
“We are grateful that there are some organisations doing free screenings. The government has come with options of vaccination which is free for both young boys and girls,” she explains.
The high cost of treatment she says, is for cancer discovered at the late stages where patients require more of palliative care.
“The government has subsidised the cost of radiotherapy treatment … it is done at 50,000 FCFA if you need only radiotherapy, whereas it used to cost 200,000 FCFA.”
Despite these efforts, healthcare professionals and advocates say a lot more needs to be done. In Cameroon, at least five women still die of cervical cancer on a daily basis, with eight new cases recorded in the same time frame.
Not a death sentence
The figures may be scary, Evelyn says, but should rather be seen as a reason to fight the diseases rather than to be scared of it. “Cervical cancer is not a death sentence,” she declares. “When you capture cancer early it is treatable at 100%.”
The caveat, she says, is that potential victims be tested as early as possible, and young girls (and now, boys too) as young as nine, be immunised.
January is marked across the globe as Cervical Cancer Awareness Month and is used to raise awareness on the disease through outreach programs and media campaigns. The World Health Organisation, recommends an incidence rate of less than four per every 100,000 women to eliminate the disease.
In this light, the institution is gunning to ensure 90% of girls are fully vaccinated with the HPV vaccine before they reach the age of 15. It also seeks to have at least 70% of women screened by age 35 (and again at 45), and a 90% treatment level of women with pre-cancer, as well as 90% of women with invasive cancer managed.
To date, the CBC Health Services reports to have vaccinated over 10,000 girls with the HPV vaccine, probably the most for any other health institution across the country.