DR Maltida Kerry is the founder of George Kerry Foundation, and the coordinator of cervical cancer control campaign, a project she started in 2009 because of the large number of Nigerian women that die every year from cervical cancer.
According to her, “for a cancer that is hundred percent preventable, why should any woman die of it? But because there is a lot of ignorance and even where some women are aware that it exists, they are not aware they can get screened and prevent this cancer”.
Inspired to make a difference in the lives of Nigeria women, she set up her foundation with the vision of helping Nigerians in the area of disease, disability, illiteracy and poverty. “We started the campaign and decided to push this campaign with all our passion and with all our might”. In this interview with Esther Onyegbula, she shares her aspirations and dreams.
Since 2009 when you started, what have you been able to achieve?
We have been able to directly screen five thousand, five hundred women in Nigeria and we have been able to provide treatment for those who are discovered at the pre cancer stage. Also, we have been able to provide training for nurses and health workers to take this awareness to their environs.
This was sponsored by Lagos state local government council. So we have been doing all these but we have been limited because of fund, which is why we have not been able to achieve all that we want to do. For instance, each year we intend to screen over five thousand women free of charge and train hundreds of nurses and primary health workers. We also intend to own a research facility or lab where we can discover the different peculiar cases of cervical cancer and determine things that expose Nigerian women to cervical cancer.
How can this be done?
We can do this by putting pressure on government agencies. We have women working at all levels of government and private institutions, and they can become a voice for us by creating awareness or supporting the campaign of cervical cancer prevention.
For a whole month, precisely in the month of January, your foundation organized a free cervical and breast cancer screening for women, what was it like considering the fact that anything that has to do with cancer gets people very scared?
We educate them, we tell them that even when they detect the cancer, it is not a reason to become afraid, it is not a reason to run away from us; after all treatment is available. Once they heard that they felt a sign of relief, and immediately one or two people came in for their screening, others were encouraged to come in. And the fact that treatment is available for women who test positive makes it a lot easier.
What is the treatment like?
The treatment takes about ten minutes and the woman is free to go her daily business, as she doesn’t have to be admitted.
What is the screening procedure like?
It is quite a simple procedure; the lady would have to undress for screening. For cervical, we use the instrument called the speculum, we use a disposable plastic type, which is less uncomfortable and not cold like the metallic ones used in some hospitals. We expose the cervices, we apply a regent in a couple of minutes and we can tell the woman if she is positive and needs a treatment or whether her cervice is fine. And it really is a beautiful procedure because it tells the woman if she needs follow up treatment or she is okay to go for another year, or if she needs follow up treatment.
At what age should a woman come for screening?
The longest should be three years after a woman has become sexually active, for instance if a lady of eighteen becomes sexually active at eighteen, she should start getting screened three years after that which is when she is twenty one? But she doesn’t even need to wait for those three years. Three years is like latest window she should have before she begins her cervical screening.
How often should a woman do this screening?
A woman needs to have regular cervical screening. I recommend that a woman should do it annually, because it is cost effective, it is not going to take out of your pocket, it doesn’t matter as a woman what job you do. I think every woman should be able to afford a cervical screening, once a year.
But if it is that bad and you have to wait until there is a free screening, don’t let it go beyond five years. Five years should be top limit. You should do it all your life and by the time you get to sixty five, we usually ask a woman if she has had three subsequent normal cervical cancer screening, then she can stop.
I am not saying women who are 65 years and have never been screened should not go for cervical screening. If you have had three subsequent normal results before you hit the age of 65, then you can stop cervical screening.
Apart from the fact that they affect different organs, what is the difference between cervical cancer and breast cancer?
Breast cancer is not preventable. It is easier for women who do breast screening, and examining to detect it early. Once she detects a lump, if she goes to the right facility, they will check that lump to determine if it is a cancer lump or not. If it is a non-cancer lump, her life is the same. She doesn’t have any problem, but if it is a cancer lump, immediately, she needs to get the lump removed and a biopsy conducted subsequently. They will also give her drugs and radiotherapy.
In case the doctors were not able to remove all the cancer in the affected areas, because they are surgeons, they can’t see how far the cancer has spread, they cut out as much as they feel this is where the cancer would be and a little bit of tissue around where the lump is being removed from and back it up with drugs and radiotherapy sometimes.
Now that should cure the cancer completely so that woman doesn’t need to come back doing any kind treatment. All she needs to do is to keep checking that breast to make sure that the surgeon got the affected areas.
But if a woman with a cancer lump who didn’t come to the hospital on time before it spreads all over the breast and spreads to the limp lope and spreads all over the body, even with the best drug, the best sugery and radiotherapy at that stage, the woman would have a poor chance of survival.
For cervical cancer, in its pre cancer stage, which is not cancer, it just means that the cells of the cervices have started changing, deteriorating and breaking down, and may lead to cancer cells in the future, but they haven’t formed them yet.
We want to catch a woman at that stage and treat her, once we catch her at that stage and treat her she had no problem at all but she has to keep coming for regular screening like every other woman in the society so that she doesn’t get another type of HPV which starts the whole problem all over again.
But if that woman waits and she doesn’t come for screening until it becomes cervical cancer and it has spread, she doesn’t have a chance of survival, because cancer of the cervices is more mortal than that of breast cancer, it is a fast killer.
You don’t wait for cancer to spread, once you discover a growth in any part of your body, it is best to check it out to determine if it is a cancer growth or not. Once it has been confirmed as a cancer growth, there is no need to waste time, get the lump out, take the drugs and medication and continue going for follow up until the doctor declares you cancer free.
What effort are you making to create the much needed awareness for this screening?
We are doing our best to create awareness. The awareness is for everyone, for doctors, for nurses, it is for every citizen in every state. For instance, if we had a very good collaboration between advertising agencies and they give us billboards everyday, constantly telling us about cervical cancer. It wouldn’t be possible for the head of a teaching, general, specialist, and private hospital to keep seeing that billboard every day and is still not doing anything. It is almost impossible, it was when this cervical screening started that some of the teaching hospitals in Lagos started incorporating cervical cancer screening as routine.
When a woman comes into the hospital it is one of the test she is going to provide, it doesn’t matter what you are coming to the teaching hospital for they are going to ask you for and their labs are running it now, in fact they couldn’t cope at a time when women were coming in to ask for the screening, with that kind of pressure, it is going to become routine.
And if there is enough talk and pressure about it, it is going to make a difference. We are just one organisation. What if we have a hundred organisations creating awareness on cervical cancer then you will feel the domino effect. The state ministries and medical facilities are aware of it and are running screening and prevention of cervical cancer but how well are they running it is the issue, are they making the needed impact?
I shouldn’t be able to compare what I am doing as an NGO with no funds to what a state is doing with the entire fund available. But right now we are par with the achievement that we have been able to record over the years, it shouldn’t be.
They should have done much more or they should have collaborated with us to do something much bigger, which is what we are pushing for, so that corporate organisations, state and federal government to key into this because it is really very important.