January is designated Cervical Health Awareness Month.
As the conversation lingers, rightfully so, a theme that dominates is ‘Cervical Cancer Stigma’ which according to Cancer Association of Botswana Project Coordinator Motlagoman Gare is a great contributor to a seemingly losing battle that the world is fighting.
Cervical cancer, a cancer that develops in the cervix is linked to infection with high-risk human papillomaviruses (HPV), an extremely common virus transmitted through sexual contact. It is the fourth most common form of cancer among women worldwide. When diagnosed, cervical cancer is the most successfully treatable form of cancer, as long as it is detected early and is managed effectively.
The Cancer Association of Botswana is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) set up to raise awareness and education on different types of cancers. Gare says about 60 percent of cervical cancer patients in Botswana are HIV positive.
Information by the World Health Organization (WHO) read that women with HIV have a six fold increase in the risk of cervical cancer compared to their HIV negative counterparts. This higher risk is manifested throughout the lifecycle starting with an increased risk of acquiring HPV, more rapid progression to cancer, lower chances of regression or pre-cancer lesions, and higher rates of recurrence following treatment.
This liaison between Cervical Cancer and a sexually transmitted Virus – (HPV), emanates plentiful stigma on the talking point, a potential barrier in the utilization of cervical cancer programs.
As is the case with HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases have been for a protracted period affiliated with negative stereotypes such as promiscuity. In consequence, people with HPV-associated cancer feel shame or anxiety around their diagnosis. Gare says, ”Some HIV positive women fear coming out or informing their family members because they fear being stigmatized.”
This stigma leads to adverse social and psychological concerns for women such as fear of social judgment and rejection, self-blame as well as shame. It perpetuates women’s reluctance and fear of getting screening for cervical cancer for early diagnosis of the disease. “Screening aims to detect precancerous lesions, that is, abnormalities in the cervix which if left untreated can develop into cervical cancer.” Says (WHO). On account of the fear of being diagnosed with Cervical Cancer, women steer clear of Cervical Cancer Screening only to end up with late diagnoses of the disease. This late stage diagnosis, gives way to the increase in Cervical Cancer cases in the country.
In response to what more can be done to eradicate cervical cancer in the country, Gare mentioned the need for more accessible screening facilities as well as the need to intensify awareness campaigns.
She added that patients have to travel long distances to access screening facilities since they are not offered in every clinic. This then demotivates patients and other women to go for screening resulting in late diagnoses of the disease.
She further urged the Ministry of Health and Wellness (MOHW) to engage in intensive Awareness Campaigns which penetrate into areas outside Gaborone.
HPV testing should be accompanied by extensive health education to inform women, debunk Cervical Cancer myths and destigmatize infection with the virus. In the words of Mark Twain, “The trouble with the world is not that people know too little: it’s that they know so many things that just aren’t so.” Getting rid of the myths that exist about cervical cancer can go a long way in ending the stigma, promoting screening for early diagnosis and ultimately putting an end to Cervical Cancer.