12 December 2017
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Beating cancer threat through early detection

Written by  Brian Itai
WAS SCREENED: Maumsamatha Mbulu, one of the beneficiaries of the Think Pink Initiative - Pic by Brian Itai WAS SCREENED: Maumsamatha Mbulu, one of the beneficiaries of the Think Pink Initiative - Pic by Brian Itai

Lilongwe, November 21, 2017: After so many years of hesitation chained her to overwhelming fear, Maumsamatha Mbulu, 38, finally exorcised her ghosts by going for a cancer screening at Kanjuwi Primary School in Salima.

“I have been hearing about cancer but I never gathered enough courage to go for screening. The thought of being diagnosed with the disease was just too much for me,” says Mbulu, a single mother of five.

Recently, Mbulu was among many women who underwent the cancer screening exercise organized by Think Pink Initiative, a movement which seeks to raise awareness on the disease.

She is a relieved person since the doctors indicated that she is free from cancer, at least for now.   

“The prospect may appear scary but it is important to undergo the screening process. Any delays in detecting your condition can only make things even worse,” says Mbulu who comes from Mtalimanja Village, Traditional Authority Khombeza in Salima.   

“Once you know your condition it can help you to practice the necessary health habits.”

Awareness about cervical and breast cancer is still low especially in rural areas and the steady increase in the prevalence of the twin diseases appear to put many women under threat.

The 2008 report by the World Health Organization (WHO) states that incidences of cervical cancer in Malawi are the highest in the world and projections indicate a further increase in the absence of interventions.

The body further reports that there are over 530 000 new cases and 275 000 deaths from cervical cancer worldwide, with 90 percent of the cases recorded in developing countries like Malawi.   

There are so many types of cancer but the common one in women is cancer of the cervix that accounts for 45 percent of all cancers, according to Malawi cancer registry of 2010.

There are over 2,300 new cases of cervical cancer per year in the country and with close to 1,600 women dying of the disease every year.

In Malawi, women aged 15-49 years are at risk of developing cervical cancer.

The devastating impact of the disease in Malawi is partly attributed to lack of public awareness on the importance of early detection of cancer and immediate action to seek treatment.

Blandina Kondowe, a breast cancer survivor and the brains behind Think Pink Initiative, says early detection of cancer helps in increasing chances of survival through easy treatment.

“There are gaps in terms of knowledge, education and awareness. Most Malawians present their cases when the disease is at an advanced stage and that requires special treatment abroad.

“Early detected cancer can be treated in Malawi and some tumors do not require complex treatment like radiation offered abroad” says Kondowe.

Since 2014, Think Pink initiative has reached 5000 women through awareness programmes with 20 diagnosed with cancer undergoing chemotherapy treatment in Malawi.

Kondowe says the primary objective of the initiative is to increase awareness especially in rural women who usually have limited knowledge about the disease.

This year, 750 women out of 99 000 women in the reproductive age bracket in Salima underwent cervical cancer screening at the district’s main hospital.

 “This percentage is very small if we compare to the population of women in the district,” says Dr. Bongani Chikwapulo, District Health Officer (DHO) for Salima.

“More work needs to be done in encouraging more women to go for cancer screening services.”

Dr. Chikwapulo believes change of mindset and perception of the disease is vital in bringing more people to access screening services at hospitals.

“When people think about cancer, what comes to their mind first is death. This is a misconception.

“If cancer is detected at an early stage, it is easy to treat and the treatment is manageable for both health service providers and patients,” Chikwapulo says.

Currently, Salima District Hospital is only offering cancer screening services in six out of 18 health centres in the district.

Dr. Chikwapulo says plans are underway to scale up the services to all health centres in the district.

“It is our commitment to reach many people. We are currently working with health surveillance assistants to communicate cancer related awareness messages to locals,” he says.

Head of non-communicable diseases and mental health in the Ministry of Health Dr. Kaponda Masiye says the country is intensifying responses to cancer with many nurses and clinicians undergoing training in screening the disease.

“Almost all district hospitals are doing cervical cancer screening. We have also strengthened our referral systems whereby any suspected cancer case is handled accordingly following proper referral procedures,” says Dr. Masiye.

He adds that Queen Elizabeth and Kamuzu Central Hospitals are the two referral facilities with oncology units where specialists help cancer patients.

“We are training more personnel so that the remaining central hospitals also have specialists handling cancer case,” says Masiye.

Other interventions include a vaccine called Human Papilloma Virus that the Ministry of Health is administering. The vaccine targets girls between nine and 13 years old with the aim of preventing future development of cervical cancer.

According to Dr. Masiye, the vaccine has been successfully piloted in Rumphi and Mzimba districts and plans are underway to roll out to other districts.

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