According to WHO, cervical cancer is the fourth leading cancer found in women and the seventh most common cancer in the world. In Nigeria it is the second most common cancer in women next to breast cancer. Yet, with this staggering statistics, the level of awareness is quite low. Many women do not know what causes this cancer and they cannot ascertain if they are at risk or what treatment are available to them. Of all the cancers, cervical cancer is the only one that has both an effective vaccine and screening programme that can prevent disease and death. Yet, women in this country barely have awareness and access to treatment.
In an effort to bridge this great divide, the Optimal Cancer Care Foundation have taken up the task to educate the Nigerian public; men, women, children, on some of the three most prevalent cancers in the world: breast, cervical and prostate cancer. In the month of January which was the Cancer Awareness Month, as a build up to World Cancer Day, they organised free screening sessions for women all through the Fridays in January. This initiative was sponsored by leading actress, Kate Henshaw. I went visiting on one of the Fridays and got screened.
As I stepped into the reception, I saw Dr. Femi Olaleye, handling a seminar in order to create awareness amongst the women. I took my time to look at the different faces of the women sitting in that reception area, perhaps to see if they were as apprehensive as I was about this whole event. Most times, any talk of cancer brings on a prayer of rejection for us Nigerian women because nobody feels that cancer is their ‘portion’. But as I sat in that room, it hit me quite hard that everyone is at risk of having cancer. But do we know our risks?
Experts say cervical cancer is caused by Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). This virus is sexually transmitted and can cause an infection in the cervix. Dr. Olaleye stressed the fact that most men carry this virus around, most times without knowing it. HPV is a virus that could be harmless in some cases and dangerous in others. Sometimes, the body can push this virus out of the system. However, if the virus remains in a woman’s body, it could turn some of the cells in the cervix to pre-cancer cells. Most pre cancer cells might go back to normal, when the body is done fighting the infection. In cases where these pre cancer cells do not go away, and are not treated, they can lead to cancer.
Cervical cancer screening is a method of preventing cancer by detecting and treating early abnormalities. Early detection is able to prevent 75% of all cancers. The Optimal Cancer Care Foundation carries out this screening using the Visual Inspection with Acetic Acid (VIA) method. They also provide cyrotherapy treatment for those that are identified with positive pre cancer cells.
Dr. Olaleye did not fail to lay emphasis on the fact that women can be protected against HPV by simply taking vaccinations. The vaccination is given in three stages. The first and second vaccines are given within a month of each other while the third one is given after 6 months.
At the end of the seminar, a lot of women left with a spring in their steps. Perhaps, not as a result of their screening test outcomes, but it’s because they had been empowered with knowledge on how to take a stand against cancer. We now knew our risk and what we needed to do to stay alive.
There are very few places like the Optimal Cancer Care Foundation in Nigeria, and there is only so much that they can do. This should serve as a clarion call to all stakeholders. Religious leaders should create awareness in their churches and mosques: Encourage the women in your congregation to get screened and receive vaccinations and treatments where applicable; partner with NGOs in this fight against cancer. Community leaders can also partner to create awareness in their communities. Corporate Organisations can take this up as their corporate social responsibility. And, the role of the government cannot be overemphasised.
In fact, it is appalling that our country, with all its natural resources and wealth, does not have a single government owned cancer screening centre. While we build good roads and improve the transportation system, we should also strive to save the lives of our mothers and our daughters. Everyone should take a stand against cancer. Dr. Olaleye concluded the day’s event by encouraging all the women in that room to go to their various communities, churches, mosques, streets, homes and be the advocates that save lives by telling people about cervical cancer and how they can prevent it. I encourage you to do the same.