Five years ago, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer.
Her world collapsed.
She was hopeless and helpless.
She contemplated suicide.
Her marriage ended.
But she stayed alive.
For her two children.
Millicent Kagonga was 25 years old when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer stage four in 2015.
But it took the jest of neighbours and the desertion of her husband for her to realise that something was wrong with her body.
“There was a foul smell from my body. It never went away even if I took a bath several times a day,” Millicent narrates her pre-diagnosis days.
Neither her husband nor neighbours dared tell her that she had a noxious smell. “My neighbours avoided using the bathroom after I did. My husband then asked me to leave,” she remembers.
In search of treatment
When she left Nairobi for her rural home, she vowed to stay alive for her children. A doctor a local health facility referred her to Kenyatta National Centre where she was diagnosed with cervical cancer and treatment began. A well-wisher took care of her medical costs and she vowed to return this favour in kind.
“I underwent three chemotherapy sessions, 25 sessions of radiotherapy and three brachytherapy sessions, “ says Millicent who has now dedicated her life to creating awareness on cervical cancer, including providing home based care to patients in her neighbourhood in Eastlands.
Cervical cancer is the second most frequent cancer among women in low-income and lower-middle-income countries. In Kenya, 7 women die every day from cervical cancer. And whereas these statistics seems far-fetched, for Millicent, this is a story close to home.
In May 2018, the World Health Organisation Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus issued a call for action to eliminate cervical cancer as a public health problem Kenya heeded the call and introduced the HPV vaccine into the Routine immunization schedule in November last year in all public health facilities and outreaches. The vaccine is given to 10-year-old as two 2-doses within a 6-month interval.
Today, Millicent has taken the key steps to prevent this disease from moving to another generation in her family. Her ten-year old daughter Grace got the cervical cancer vaccine when it was first launched in Kenya in November last year by President Uhuru Kenyatta. And a fortnight ago, Grace went for the second dose, to amplify the importance of getting the life-saving vaccine.
Why is it important to give the vaccines to the 10 year old girls?
A paper in the Lancet journal in February this year, by Prof Marc Brisson and colleagues, a high HPV vaccination coverage of girls can lead to cervical cancer elimination in most Low and Middle Income countries (LMICs) by the end of the century. The paper also showed that about 20% of women in LMICs have ever been screened for cervical cancer compared with more than 60% in high-income countries?
And did you also know that about half of the new cervical cancer cases worldwide occurred in women living in low and middle income countries? The situation is further dire with the numbers showing that less than 30% of LMICs have introduced HPV vaccination compared with more than 85% of high-income countries.
According to Prof Brisson, without further intervention, these inequalities in the burden of cervical cancer are expected to grow, because recent increases in the uptake of human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccination and cervical cancer screening have mainly occurred in high-income countries.
What difference does it make to vaccinate boys?
Studies have shown that in general, if HPV vaccination coverage was high among girls, vaccinating boys was predicted to produce very small incremental gains in cervical cancer prevention.
For example, one of the models known as CCEMC predicted that girls-only HPV vaccination with 90% coverage would produce the same reduction in cervical cancer incidence as vaccinating both girls and boys at 80% coverage.
According to consultant Gynaecologist and Obstetrician Nelly Bosire, cervical cancer is caused by the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) and can develop after many years of being infected by the HPV virus. Sadly, it is does not show any symptoms until the cancer is at an advanced state. Dr Bosire further notes that two HPV types (16 and 18) cause 70% of cervical cancers and pre-cancerous cervical lesions.
Symptoms of cervical cancer
What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding after sexual intercourse
- Back, leg or pelvic pain;
- Weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Vaginal discomfort
- Odurous discharge
- Single swollen leg
Millicent challenges each one of us to be symbols of hope to cancer survivors. She is one of the founding members of a support group that goes under the same name, Symbols of Hope. The 40-member team offer support and encouragement to families affected by cancer by knitting mats and other income-generating activities.
Her closing words?
“Get your 10 year old daughter vaccinated against cervical cancer,” she said.
She also quotes words that encourage her everyday;
“Just as pain and despair can come from other human beings, hope, too, can be given to other human beings,”