Cervical cancer is a deadly disease that is preventable but had claimed the lives of many Nigerian women.
IN the early stages of cervical cancer, the woman may or may not experience any symptoms. As a matter of fact, a woman may not have any symptoms for years before the situation becomes incurable. So, if you notice that you have abnormal vaginal bleeding or spotting between periods, pain during sexual intercourse or bleeding after intercourse, foul-smelling discharge from the vagina, weight loss or even blood in your urine, then you need to rush to your doctor to test for cervical cancer," says Dr. Toyin Gboyega, on the most common genital cancer disease affecting women in Nigeria.
In a country plagued with various health challenges, cervical cancer kills one woman every hour in Nigeria and over 9,000 women every year.
Explaining the nature of the disease, Dr. Omolola Salako, Senior Registrar, Radiation Oncology at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) and Executive Director of Sebeccly Cancer Care, stated, "Cervical cancer arises as a result of heavy infection of the cells in the cervix, also known as the neck of the womb. This is caused by the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) and it is usually transmitted among sexually active people. This is due to the skin to skin contact of the genital area between the man and the woman whether they use a condom or not."
Explaining further, she said, "Usually there is no visible sign that a woman is carrying this virus, so she does not know she’s slowly crawling toward cancer, and by the time the cancer starts to spread, the woman has only a short time to live. The virus can stay in a woman’s body for up to 10 or 15 years without showing any signs but there are tests that can be done such as a Pap-smear or a visual inspection of the cervix, using acetic acid (VIA) which costs about N1,000. Since these tests are so affordable and very preventable, in this time and age, women should not die from this disease."
The medical practitioner also stated that "women who are in a polygamous marriage, have had more than one sexual partner in their lifetime or have had intercourse with a man who has had more than one sexual partner, are likely to be infected with the cancer-causing virus."
According to the World Health Organisation, WHO, Nigeria has a population of over 40 million women between 15 to 45 years of age who are at risk of developing cervical cancer. Current estimates indicate that every year, 14,550 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and 9,659 die from the disease. WHO also projects a 25 per cent increase over the next decade in the absence of widespread interventions.
Giving reasons why the death rate from this disease is on the rise, Dr Eunice Alegbe of Health Sinai Diagnostic Clinic, revealed, "How many women have you seen going for cervical cancer screening? When you go to the screening centers, most of the people you see are women who are already in their advanced stages. Many Nigerian women do not seem to understand that the earlier they start to invest in their health, the better of them. This is where the government and non-governmental organisations come in and sensitize people on the importance of testing."
Although the Minister of Health, Prof. Onyebuchi Chukwu, in recent reports, claimed that the Federal Government had purchased $9 million worth of screening equipment, upgraded 20 active hospital-based cancer registries and trained medical personnel, there are calls for effective immunisation plans and widespread enlightenment campaigns on the benefits of early screening.
Dr. Alegbe stated, "Each year the government releases money for major awareness projects but little or nothing gets done. Instead of eating all of the money they have been allocated, they should put it to good use by organising awareness programmes and free screening exercises. By the time the women see that their lives are in danger, and that they can get a cure at an affordable price, they will show up. It is also important that when they come for screening and they get their results, they should be able to immediately get cheap treatment or be immunised."
Amidst the grave dangers posed by being infected with the virus, the good news is that the disease is preventable.
Giving an advice, Dr. Gboyega said, "There are little things people can do to protect themselves. The first thing is to abstain from sex especially if you are not married. And if you are married, practice faithfulness both for your sake and the benefit of your spouse. Another thing is to go for vaccination if you are still a virgin. This will help your immune system fight the virus if you come in contact with it. Finally, try and visit a screening center at any of the general hospitals or qualified labs for regular cervical check-up so that you can quickly address any health issue on time before it blows into full cancer."
A recent study indicates that black women are more likely to develop and die from cervical cancer than people from other parts of the world.
Shedding light on this phenomenon, Dr. Gboyega said, "Most black people are can barely afford a healthy diet and we all know that there is a direct link between the quality of food you eat and the level of your immunity which is required to fight diseases. Therefore, when you consider the fact the women from Europe, America and other developed countries live in better environmental conditions and feed better than many Nigerians and have access to better medical facilities, you will see why the prevalence of cervical cancer is higher here."
While the threat of being infected looms, it is important to identify individuals who have a high chance of contacting HPV and cervical cancer in the long term, so that they can start taking preventive measures. Some of the risk factors are;
Sexual activity- Becoming sexually active at an early stage, especially before the age of 18, increases your chance of getting cervical cancer. The greater your number of sexual partners and the greater your partner’s number of sexual partners the greater your chance of acquiring HPV….. It is worthy of note that condoms may not offer effective protection against HPV infections and therefore the best preventive measure is abstinence from sex. However, cervical cancer in less common in women who use barrier contraception like condoms than in controls or those on hormonal contraception such as pills.
Weakened immune system – Most women who are infected with HPV never develop cervical cancer. However, if you have an HPV infection and your immune system is weakened by another health condition, you may be more likely to develop cervical cancer. especially if they have engaged in risky sexual behaviours in the past. It has also been found that women who are HIV positive tend to have pre-cancerous cervical changes with HPV infection due to the weakened immune system.
Cigarette smoking it is known that tobacco use increases the risk of precancerous changes as well as cancer of the cervix. A combination of smoking and HPV infection will create a conducive environment for the development of cervical cancer.
Poor personal hygiene Practicing good hygiene can protect you from a host of infections, HPV is one of them