At first, she thought it was menstruation. But it was the frequent bleeding that later baffled her.
“I called my sister-in-law in Mzuzu and explained to her my condition. She advised me to immediately go to hospital and get screened for cancer,” says Bahati Simkonda of Mkondezi Village in Nkhata Bay.
When she went to Nkhata Bay District Hospital, Simkonda says doctors referred her to Mzuzu Central Hospital (MCH).
“At the central hospital, I was told I had cervical cancer and that it was already at an advanced stage. I was devastated to hear that,” she says.
This is how serious and tricky cervical cancer is, confirms Solomon Chomba, a clinical officer who screened Simkonda on May 5 2015 at the hospital’s Obstetrics and Gynaecology Department.
“Cervical cancer is a silent killer,” he says.
Chomba says the only way to deal with it is early detection.
“This is why women are encouraged to periodically visit hospitals for screening,” he says.
Mzimba (North) district health officer (DHO) Dr Khumbo Shumba says cervical cancer is the most common cancer among Malawi women.
“It is a big challenge across the nation. Here in Mzuzu and Mzimba North, we screen about 340 women each month on average.
“And out of the 340, about 20 of them are found to have early signs of cervical cancer and between 10 and 12 are found with advanced cervical cancer,” he says.
Shumba explains that the common signs of cervical cancer, which is caused by the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), are unpainful bleeding from the private parts, pain during sexual intercourse and unaccounted for lower abdominal pain.
“So, we always encourage women to undergo screening for cervical cancer when they experience such symptoms or signs. After undergoing the screening, we should be able to know at what stage the cervical cancer is,” he says.
According to him, it is always alarming when women come for screening looking very healthy and energetic, only to realise they have the cancer after screening.
“When I tell them it is at advanced stage and there is no remedy, except sending them for palliative care, they become surprised because they had not been feeling any pain,” says Chomba.
Palliative care focuses on providing the patient with relief from the symptoms–pain, physical and mental stress of the cancer. The goal is to improve quality of life for both the patient and the family.
“Literally, such women are waiting to die because they came to us [hospital for screening] late. You ask them why they came late, they will tell you that they didn’t know anything because they felt no pain,” says Chomba.
Such sad stories are what moved Kuwala Health Media (Kuhem), a Mzuzu-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) engaged in public awareness on all curable and preventable diseases in Malawi, to embark on cervical cancer workshops.
Kuhem’s executive director Joel Jere says the organisation has already conducted cervical cancer workshops at Hilltop, Lubinga and Mchengautuwa in the city.
“When we heard about the increasing number of women being found with cervical cancer at Mzuzu Central Hospital, we decided to do something about it,” Jere says.
He says the response has been good. For example, at the Hilltop workshop, there were over 100 people.
“Out of the 100 people, only two said were aware of cervical cancer; the rest said they did not know anything about the disease. So we advised the women to go for regular screening,” adds Jere.
Such encounters reveal that an information gap exists among Malawian women on this type of cancer, especially those living in rural areas.
Dr Stephen Kalua of Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital (QECH) commends Kuhem for taking cervical cancer messages to people in remote areas.
“In Malawi, almost 2 000 women die of cervical cancer each year. In terms of prevalence rate, Malawi is on number one in the Southern Africa Development Community (Sadc) and number three in the world in terms of high cervical cancer prevalence.
“Although hospitals are conducting awareness through posters and other means right in the hospital premises, there is need for other stakeholders to take awareness campaigns to people in the villages like what Kuhem is doing,” says Kalua.