Keeping Families Whole with Cervical Cancer Prevention
“When I was growing up, lots of women and men—including myself—had no idea that cervical cancer was a silent killer. … That is why the screening program is very, very important for us.”
– Musonda Ngolwe, Counselor, PCI/Zambia
Cervical cancer has become the number-one cancer killer of women in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2015 alone, there were over 100,000 cases of cervical cancer and 61,000 deaths in the region. A majority of these women are in their childbearing and productive years and, in turn, leave hundreds of thousands of children without mothers.
This is a devastating fact considering cervical cancer prevention, treatment, and referral can be carried out at a low cost. Women can be tested for less than $2 and, if pre-cancerous lesions are found, can be treated with cryotherapy on the spot for less than $25.
Zambia has the fourth-highest rate of cervical cancer in the world. The country is particularly vulnerable to cervical cancer as it has one of the highest HIV/AIDS rates in the world and people living with HIV are more susceptible to this type of cancer.
PCI worked with the Zambian Defense Force (ZDF) to integrate a cervical cancer screening, treatment, and referral program into ZDF’s mobile home and community-based treatment program. With funding from the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, as part of Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon support, PCI offers screening through visual inspection with acetic acid (VIA) and cryotherapy for treatment of precancerous cervical lesions at and in communities around ZDF bases throughout the country.
Over the past seven years, PCI has screened over 23,703 service women and civilians for cervical cancer and treated nearly 853 women.
Causes of Cervical Cancer and Prevention
Cervical cancer is caused by severe abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix. Cells in the cervix naturally undergo constant changes and when these cells acquire a genetic change, they become abnormal. The reason for these cell changes are unclear, but it is certain there are factors that play a role including the presence of Human Papillomavirus (HPV), HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, smoking, and a weak immune system. (Mayo Clinic)
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Prevention of Cervical Cancer in Rural Communities
Evelyn lived in a small, rural village two hours by car from the Zambian town of Kabwe. She had six children and while fighting hard to care for them with little money, her body was waging its own war without her knowing it. Evelyn had Stage 2 cervical cancer. She first learned of her condition at a screening opportunity sponsored by PCI, in partnership with Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon, at a ZDF facility near her home.
After getting her diagnosis, PCI began assisting Evelyn to gain access to advanced care at the Cancer Diseases Hospital in Lusaka. PCI staff planned to bring her to Lusaka to begin radiotherapy, but sadly she succumbed to her illness just days before she could make the trip — two months after being diagnosed with cervical cancer.
Screenings and preventative care are crucial for catching cervical cancer early, but it can be challenging for women in remote areas to reach health care services. We are working with Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon to bring cervical cancer prevention, treatment, and referrals to where it is most needed. Through PCI’s combined efforts, we are able to reach even more women in rural Zambia through our mobile outreaches and by harnessing the power of community and women’s groups. We have screened over 23,000 women in Zambia for cervical cancer since 2011.
While cervical cancer is preventable and curable at a low cost, the disproportionate burden in low-resource settings is largely due to limited access to essential prevention, screening, and treatment services. Eighty-seven percent of cervical cancer cases occur in low-resource settings. In the west, 95% of women survive stage one cervical cancer whereas only 60% of women in sub-Saharan Africa survive it.
PCI is making a difference in communities like Evelyn’s to ensure that one day, not one child will be left motherless from cervical cancer. Her story serves as a reminder that a woman’s health is critical to the well-being of her family and her community.
Globally, one woman dies of cervical cancer every two minutes. [...]