A commitment from women is helping to eliminate cervical cancer in Malawi
In early 2014, aged 43, living in living Chikwawa and caring for her young son, Falesi Wajomba received a diagnosis that would turn her world upside down : she had cervical cancer. Statistically it was not so surprising – close to 4,000 Malawian women were also told that they had cervical cancer that year. It is a hidden disease that rarely shows any symptoms until the cancer has spread and it is too late to treat.
A staggering 2,000 women are likely to die from cervical cancer in Malawi each year. It remains one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers in the country and accounts for 40% of all cancer cases among women. While Falesi was one of the lucky few to survive, these figures represent an enormous burden for a cancer that is on the verge of elimination in other parts of the world.
HPV vaccination, cervical cancer screenings and treatment programs are dramatically lowering cervical cancer rates around the globe. Zambia is on track to see a 30% mortality reduction by 2030. Canada is taking action to eliminate cervical cancer in the next two decades. And Australia is preparing to be cervical cancer free as soon as 2028.
But accessing cervical cancer control services is often complex, especially for low- and middle-income countries where nine out of 10 cervical cancer deaths occur. With an estimated 50% of the population living below the poverty line, Malawi is considered one of the world’s poorest nations. The financial hurdles are crippling and cervical cancer prevention services remain out of reach for most women.
There are other factors too. Patriarchal norms, lack of information and limited access to transport also hinder a woman’s ability to receive preventative care. Thankfully, several community groups and organisations have recognised the challenges and have launched initiatives to control cervical cancer in Malawi.
Women’s Coalition Against Cancer, (WOCACA) is one of the key organisations pushing for urgent access to cervical cancer services for women and girls in the region. WOCACA is a women-led, non-for-profit organisation tirelessly working towards a cervical cancer free future. Through advocacy, awareness, education and training, the group is drawing on shared knowledge to ensure no more women suffer at the hands of this common but treatable disease.
Overwhelming, Malawian women are diagnosed with cervical cancer during their prime reproductive years. Falesi was in her early forties and desperate to have another baby. Following weeks of unexplained stomach cramps and painful sex, she asked her husband, Pastor Wajomba, to take her to the local hospital. Tests confirmed that she had advanced cervical cancer and would need to have her entire uterus removed. At the time, Falesi was heartbroken. “It was so hard for me to accept, because I only had one child.”
While cervical cancer took a heavy toll on her marriage, Falesi’s husband never left her side. Sadly, this is far from usual in Malawi. Late-stage symptoms, including bleeding and vaginal odour, often lead to social exclusion and many women are abandoned after receiving a diagnosis. Pastor Wajomba passionately said that “as men we should assist our wives to go for screenings – early screening can make all the difference”.
In the time since Falesi was diagnosed, Malawi has taken significant steps to lower cervical cancer rates. Just over two years ago, the Ministry of Health implemented an HPV immunisation program in partnership with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. The program is expected to reach 1.5 million girls across the country, aged between 9 – 14. HPV DNA testing has also been introduced in several health facilities, with view to roll these tests out nationally.
In 2020, WOCACA and AmplifyChange also engineered a project to increase access to quality cervical cancer services and empower more women to prioritise their cervical health.
The project is focusing on the following activities to achieve the overall objective:
- Conducting a formative research to understand traditional beliefs on causes, stigma, and treatment for cervical cancer.
- Developing of Social Behaviour Change and Communication materials, tools and strategy. This is aimed at bolstering local understanding and knowledge of cancer related issues so that the populace can access and utilise the cervical cancer services.
- Working in partnership with different key players such as Ministry of Health, influential leaders (religious, traditional administrative as well as political) to influence policy change, and ensure that cancer services are available to the neediest and deserving persons
- Provision of outreach cervical cancer services that are integrated with other Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) services.
Falesi is now working with WOCACA to encourage women across the country to schedule time for cervical screenings. She has also set up her own support group where women living with cervical cancer can share their experiences. The group enables women in the community to attend cervical screenings, even paying for transport to the district hospital.
Sophie Chithalo, a community health nurse in Malawi said, “I was happy to hear these women had formed this support group, and I will fully support their work of raising awareness to save as many lives as possible from this treatable disease.”
Do you think it’s time we all took action towards worldwide cervical cancer elimination? Join the movement and sign up to the campaign today. We’d also love to hear your feedback on this story, so please post your comments to us below. You’ll also find us on all the usual social channels. With widespread global coverage of the HPV vaccination and dedicated cervical screening programs, it will be possible to eliminate cervical cancer for future generations.
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