Eveline Mayaah knows the pain of losing a loved one to cervical cancer. She lost her mother to the disease 10 years ago, after a late diagnosis and a lack of treatment options.
“We didn’t really know that our mother was suffering from anything,” Mayaah tells Timescape Magazine.
“She just had back pain and fatigue, but we thought it was normal for her age. She didn’t have any bleeding, which is a common symptom for women who are past menopause. By the time she went to the hospital and got screened, it was too late. The cancer had spread and there was nothing we could do,” Mayaah recalls.
And so, after a long and agonizing battle, Mayaah’s mother passed on, at the age of seventy.
“We should have been celebrating her 80th birthday today if cancer hadn’t cut her life short,” Mayaah says, her eyes turning misty.
Cervical cancer is caused by persistent infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted infection that can affect the skin, genital area, and throat. Most people who get infected with HPV clear the virus naturally, but in some cases, the virus persists and causes abnormal cells to develop in the cervix, which can become cancerous over time.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women globally, with an estimated 604,000 new cases and 342,000 deaths in 2020. About 90% of these deaths occurred in low- and middle-income countries, where access to vaccination, screening, and treatment services is limited or nonexistent.
Cameroon is one of the countries with the highest burden of cervical cancer in the world. The WHO ranks cervical cancer as the second most common cancers in Cameroon with 2,770 new cases and 1,878 deaths recorded every year.
Dr. Justine Essono, the Deputy Permanent Secretary of the National Committee for the Fight against Cancer says five in ten women in Cameroon suffer from cervical cancer-a rather high incidence for a disease that kills a woman every two minutes globally.
“It means that if you have ten neighbors, be sure that about five will have cervical cancer. And maybe among the five, four of them are going to die,” she told Timescape Magazine.
The good news though is that Cervical cancer isn’t a death sentence. “It is a cancer that can be completely eliminated,” Essono said.
To do this, the WHO has come up with a global strategy to eliminate cervical cancer by 2030.The strategy entails fully vaccinating 90% of girls with HPV vaccine by age 15 years, screening 70% of women with a high-performance test by 35 years of age and again by 45 years of age and treating 90% of women identified with cervical disease.
It is what the WHO calls the 90-70-90 target for cervical cancer elimination. Achieving that ambitious target calls for a synergy of action. And so, as part of activities to mark the Cervical Cancer Awareness Month and in the build up to the World Cancer Day on January 30, a workshop bringing together journalists, representatives of non-governmental organizations and officials of the National Committee for the Fight Against Cancer came together in a workshop in Yaounde.
Jointly Organized by the Cameroon Baptist Convention Health Services and Humanity at Heart International in collaboration with the Cameroon Association of English-Speaking Journalists, the workshop highlighted the important role the media and the civil society can play in helping attain the 90-70-90 targets.
The workshop highlighted the gaps and barriers that hinder the implementation of the elimination strategy, such as vaccine hesitancy, lack of awareness, high cost of treatment, limited human and financial resources, and weak health systems.
“For Cameron to attain this, all the actors need to come on board. The civil society, the scientists, the media, the hospitals, the government, for us to push this agenda forward,” said Dr. Simon Manga of the CBC Health Services.
Mayaah who has turned her grief into action and joined the fight to eliminate cervical cancer in Cameroon told journalists that constant reporting on cervical cancer and therefore raising awareness about the disease could be critical in helping attain the targets.
The Executive Director of Humanity at Heart International said her organization has been doing just that, as she works tirelessly to ensure that no other woman suffers what her mother went through.
“I’m keen on going into communities and linking women to screening centers and then to treatment centers should they be diagnosed with any form of cancer,” Mayaah said.
“I have a dream that one day, no woman will die from cervical cancer. I have a dream that one day, cervical cancer will be history. I have a dream that one day, we will celebrate the elimination of cervical cancer. And I will not stop until that dream comes true,” she says.