Cervix in crisis: A preventive cancer that kills Ghanaian women

The Human papillomavirus microbe may look pretty but this sexually transmitted infection predicts risk of cervical cancer.

Dear women, Cervical cancer is the killer that creeps up on you. It moves, grows and develops in stealth mode. It brings people psychological despair, mental breakdowns and social isolation. In advanced stages, it becomes dehumanising.

If you don’t regularly get screened or have never been vaccinated, you bear the risk of getting cervical cancer through a sexually transmitted infection called the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), smoking or having multiple sexual partners.

The cancer has a latency period of 10 to 15 years and therefore provides a big chance to treat a patient in time. Although, most miss this window.

It is the fourth most frequent cancer in women. The year 2018 alone recorded 570,000 new cases worldwide, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The WHO also reports that of the deaths that occur from cervical cancer, 90% are in developing countries like Ghana.

It is a public health threat to Ghana’s women.

It is of extreme importance that Ghanaian women seek preventive measures against this silent killer.

With similar symptoms like those that come with menstruation, pregnancy and menopause, it is also of extreme importance that women stay vigilant because there is a risk of misdiagnosis after a visit to a hospital or misjudgement on whether to visit a doctor, in the first place.

About 1,500 women lost to cervical cancer in a year
In this part of the world, there are additional threats looming.

For one, Ghanaian women usually get checked at a much later stage when the cancer has spread and developed.

Out of some 3,000 cases that will be reported to the hospital for symptoms of cervical cancer in a year in Ghana, about 1,500 cases will have already advanced to incurable stages.

The reality is stark.

Ghanaian women with cervical cancer die frequently and it’s because they simply don’t go to the hospital early enough to help themselves.

There are dire consequences for waiting
Some only decide to visit the hospital for tests when the cancer has deteriorated because they believe that something spiritual is responsible for the medical condition.

Yaa Fofie, a wife and a mother of four walked around her village for years without knowing she had cervical cancer.

Even though she and her husband had noticed something was wrong, Yaa only visited the hospital five years after the symptoms fully manifested.

“We concluded it was a spiritual disease so I sent her to a prayer camp twice yet she didn’t get better. They kept taking money from us. I was so worried so I took her to a Muslim traditional healer [and] still her condition was deteriorating,” her 66-year-old husband, Yaw Boamah said.

“Observing the pain she was going through, especially at night, I then decided to take her to hospital,” he said.

Yaw did not want to lose his wife. He did not want to lose the mother of his four children.

“I was afraid my wife will die and we’ll not see her again.”

To try to keep his wife alive somehow, he sold all his worldly goods to pay for her care.

“I’d rather lose my investment than to lose my wife,” he said. “If God gives me strength at least I can work and have them back. My concern was to just look for someone to buy them.”

But in times like this, money, unfortunately, runs out in the blink of an eye and support had to come from somewhere else.

“I eventually got someone to buy [my goods] and that gave me some money [that] I used for her medical treatment but it finished in no time. So, I had to sell my plot of land too. Now, that money has also finished. Friends and well-wishers are those supporting us with some tokens; at times GH¢100 and on a good day, GH¢500. These are what we save and use for her medical bills,” Yaw says.

Yaa, on the other hand, who was 60 years old, still couldn’t believe that she was suffering from cancer.

“I had no idea what cancer was all about. I didn’t know it could attack the uterus and the stomach. All I knew about it was that it attacks only the leg.”

She assumed she was experiencing another phase of menopause because it was painless. She only became alarmed when she started growing lean.

Spiritual solutions versus medical solutions
It’s true. Most simply don’t know about cervical cancer. In fact, the picture is bigger and darker.

Ghana is a country where almost everything that happens to an individual or a group of them, can be linked to or blamed on fetishes and spiritual beliefs and this poses a problem for medical practitioners.

Dr Adu Appiah-Kubi, who is a Gynaecologist at the Komfe Anokye Teaching Hospital says that lack of understanding of the disease influences people’s decisions on what to do to solve their problems.

“Most of them are due to 1), ignorance of the disease: they don’t even know the disease exists and 2) lack of education or illiteracy: they don’t know anything about the disease and they even don’t know where to send the problems to. That is why most of them resort to all those things.”

Medical doctors compete with ‘spiritual helpers’ in the race to save women from cervical cancer.

But patients lose out significantly when they decide to rely on ‘spiritual helpers or healers’ for healthcare.

“If you see a 100 of them, about 80 would have come in at an advanced stage and by that I mean they come in at a time they are no longer curable. That is the biggest challenge we are facing,”

Dr Titus Beyuo, who is a consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist with the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Ghana blames the film and entertainment industries for its continued contribution to miseducating on health and related matters.

In conversation with Daniel Dadzie on the Super Morning Show on Monday, he suggested that movies produced by Ghanaians should include appropriate health education in their content and do away with the spiritual connotations that are included for entertainment because they can influence a decision being made in the real world.

Access to proper preventative measures
However, not everyone is financially advantaged to access screening at hospitals to get tested because it is currently not included as part of the National Health Insurance Scheme.

Doctors have called for preventive measures against cervical cancer to be placed on the health insurance scheme to reduce the death rate from the disease.

There is hope
Not everyone dies from cervical cancer. It can be treated if spotted early. If in doubt get checked out.

Just as one patient, Janet Ennin did.

Now, 73 years old and a retired nurse, Janet sits in her home in Saltpond to tell her story.

Her story started in 2016 when she felt something was unusual.

She checked herself and realised she had had a heavy vaginal discharge.

“I thought it would stop…for five days, it was not stopping,” she said.

Upon noticing the discharge, she immediately went to the Komfe Anokye Teaching Hospital to report her case.

She was told that she would have to come for an operation to stop the cancer in its tracks. In the surgery, her uterus was taken out.

Janet Ennin survived.

Dr Appiah-Kubi says you have a chance of survival if the infection is caught in stage one. At that point, there’s an 80% to 90% survival rate.

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