Winny Munenga has been living with HIV for close to two decades.Her experience in palliative care made her realise that people especially women living with HIV were prone to other diseases like cervical cancer.
So when she started feeling unusual abdominal pains in 2014, she got worried and decided she would go to the clinic.
The yellowish discharge she had, got her worrying; she thought it was cervical cancer.
Fear gripped her, amid the confusion, she did not go to the clinic. Instead, she took any herbs she came across in a bid to heal the disease but the discharge got even worse and this time it was smelly.
“I had been into palliative care for some time by then and my experiences along with the trainings that I have received over the years made me aware that women with HIV were prone to cervical cancer.”
“So when I started feeling some pain and unease, I got really worried. I was scared as I feared it could be cervical cancer and now the yellow discharge worsened my fears.”
“Oblivious of the risks, I started taking any herbs I came across and avoided the clinic. Fear ruled, my fear was to be told that I had cervical cancer,” she recalls.
The 45-year-old says it was only when her condition worsened that she realised she had no other option but to go to the nearest health facility and face the devil.
“The nurses told me that they would screen for cervical cancer using a method known as visual inspection with acetic acid (VIAC).”
“Following the screening, they picked that I was developing cancer cells. When the results came, I was shaken and it unsettled me as I thought this meant that I had cancer. I had witnessed friends suffering from cervical cancer die.”
“I saw the lesions on the pictures of my cervix, and I could see that it didn’t look the same as a normal cervix.”
Winnie says it was the explanation she got from the nurses that calmed her.
“Then the nurses explained to me that the lesions were still in their early stage and could be treated and stopped from developing into cancer.
“So they told me they were immediately treating the lesions using a method known as cryotherapy to avoid them developing into cancer.”
While Winnie is grateful she was screened for early signs of cervical cancer and got preventive treatment after the lesions on her cervix were picked, her heart bleeds for thousands of women who continue to die from cervical cancer in Zimbabwe.
Cervical cancer is preventable, but it remains the second most common cause of cancer among women and the leading cause of female cancer deaths in sub-Saharan Africa according to Avert organisation.
It is also one of the most common cancers in women living with HIV. Patterns of cervical cancer and HIV typify the experience of young women in Africa — who face multiple barriers to good health hence it is such steps like Winnie took to access early screening and treatment that can save women in sub-Saharan Africa.
The Government, supported by its partners, is offering free screening and treatment for pre-cancerous lesions following the integration of HIV and cervical cancer programmes in the country.
Winnie is now raising awareness on the critical importance of screening early for cervical cancer, along with swift preventive treatment if early signs of cervical cancer are detected.
The 45-year-old believes early detection has potential to save lives of thousands of women succumbing to cervical cancer in the country.
“Late detection is the most dangerous thing that is killing women. In my palliative work I have come across women who have cervical cancer and this has no treatment. I have seen them groaning, wasting until they die of cancer.
“While the anti-retroviral therapy has done so much to improve the quality of life in people living with HIV, cervical cancer is fast becoming a threat and the only way to beat it is screening and early treatment.
“As someone talking from experience, the precancerous lesions can be treated and stopped from developing into cancer, the starting point is screening. You can only know the status of your cervix if you are screened.”
Winnie is also urging the Government to make the cancer screening and treatment services to be available and accessible especially in marginalised communities.
Speaking during a recent media training, the Organisation for Public Health Intervention and Development (OPHID) executive director, Dr Theonevus Tinashe Chinyanga says the integration approach is to stop cervical cancer before it starts.
“Women living with HIV are four to five times more likely to develop cervical cancer than women who are HIV-negative. Cervical cancer is the most common cancer accounting for 33,2 percent of cancers among Zimbabwean women.
“The process involves finding abnormal cell changes (pre-cancers) and treating them before they have a chance to turn into a cervical cancer. For any woman, early detection is critical to achieving a favourable outcome and leads to more affordable treatment options,” says Dr Chinyanga.
Since 2018, OPHID is among some of the partners that have been collaborating with Government to integrate cervical cancer screening and treatment within HIV care and treatment programme in the 24 districts they operate in.
According to the World Health Organisation, HIV-infected women are at heightened risk for pre-invasive and invasive neoplasia of the cervix, HIV/AIDS care and treatment programmes thus provide an ideal platform to integrate cervical cancer prevention activities in countries which face a dual burden of both AIDS and cervical cancer, an AIDS-defining disease.