Cervical cancer a major threat to women

By Annines Angula

STATISTICS show that 373 Namibian women were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015-2016– while nine men were also positively diagnosed during the same year for breast cancer. Additionally, 241 cases of cervical cancer were reported in Namibia in 2016.

On average more than 3,000 Namibians are diagnosed with cancer annually. With such a small population of under 3 million, the cancer figures are indeed shocking. Skin, breast and cervical cancers are the most commonly diagnosed forms of the disease – and the evidence shows that cervical cancer is on the rise.

Too many Namibian women who are not aware of the early symptoms and causes of cervical cancer die from it unnecessarily. Mhelo (not her real name) died in 2017, aged just 23 years, after two years of severe pain as a result of cervical cancer, thus leaving her young daughter motherless.

“When cancer started developing in her cervix, there were no signs or symptoms or anything abnormal on her. She lived her life as normal as any other woman,” said Mhelo’s sister, Hertha (also not her real name).

Confidente spoke to Hertha last week, who took care of the late Mhelo before the latter died. She thought everything was normal until things started turning ugly when her sister started experiencing severe bleeding and pain in her cervix before developing bulky lumps in her womb, she said.

“Mhelo started complaining of pains in her cervix in 2015 after she gave birth to her daughter Initially she thought the pain was just one of the minor infections that one gets after giving birth, so she kept quiet about it. The pain developed from mild to severe and she developed a lump beneath her anus, that’s when she went to the clinic,” she said.

“The lump caused pain on her neck and at the back muscles of her legs. At the clinic, the nurses said it was a boil in its early stages. So, they gave her some tablets. Cancer had damaged her cervix and womb and we told her to give get home-based care, as there was nothing left for them [to do] and the family to make things better.”

For those who live deep in the rural areas, cervical cancer screening is not yet common as many women are unware of the risks presented by the disease. If Mhelo had known the symptoms of the disease, perhaps she would have gone to the doctors earlier, before  the cancer had spread.

According to a health specialist based in Windhoek, cervical cancer refers to a condition whereby abnormal cells in the cervix start to grow very quickly and cannot be controlled by normal bodily processes.

“Over time, normal cells in the cervix will be taken over by the cancer cells, which may spread to other parts of the body and disturb normal function. With early diagnosis and treatment, cervical cancer is manageable and curable. However, delaying to seek help causes debility and death,” they warned.

Cervical cancer is said to be caused by the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), which is the most common viral infection of the reproductive tract.

“Screening takes advantage of the fact that pre-cancer on the cervix can be present for an average of 10 years before it becomes invasive. During this period, tests such as VIAC or pap smear can be done to identify these curable conditions early,” the clinician said.

In Namibia, the incidence of cervical cancer is reported to be 35 per 100,000 women, according to Ministry of Health statistics which show that 2,270 new cases are reported annually, with 1,541 associated deaths, and 99 percent of cervical cancers are associated with HPV infection.

Globally, cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in women. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), every year 530,000 new cases are diagnosed and 275,000 lives lost to the disease. Of the 530,000 people diagnosed with cervical cancer annually, over 85 percent are in developing countries.