Cervical Cancer Awareness Month: Women 40 years and older face highest risk

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Cervical cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths for women in South Africa, with over 6 000 women dying from the disease every year, according to the Cancer Association of South Africa. It is also one of the most preventable and treatable types of cancer, provided it is detected early.

This Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, which runs throughout September, The Tshemba Foundation, a non-profit organisation that recruits medical volunteers to provide life-changing support at Tintswalo Hospital in rural Acornhoek, Mpumalanga, has raised concern around the risk that women face, due to a lack of routine screening.

“We see a high rate of late-stage cervical cancer diagnosis among women aged 30 and up, but the risk increases considerably for those aged over 40. In general, they are less likely to get the recommended number of pap smears and breast examinations.

“This is because they spend less time in health facilities and have fewer interactions with health services, compared to pregnant women and young mothers who visit clinics and receive regular check-ups, as part of caring for their children. Many of these women often don’t know that they’re supposed to go for routine screenings – especially if they are living with HIV,” says Dr Nicole Fiolet, Women’s Health Project Manager at The Tshemba Foundation.

By not attending regular screenings, women are missing out on potentially life-saving treatment. This puts additional pressure on Tintswalo Hospital, which provides care to an underserved population of about 300 000 people, although it has no specialist doctor posts.

This is where The Tshemba Foundation’s medical volunteer programme comes in, to connect medical professionals with knowledge, skills, experience, and a desire to give back, with rural communities in need at the 423-bed public hospital and its surrounding clinics.

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“It is recommended that women go for cervical cancer screening once every ten years, as a minimum. Ideally, they should be going every five years, if in the over 40 age category, while those living with HIV are generally advised to go every three years. This ensures that abnormal cells can be detected before they become a problem. With the help of volunteers, we can ensure that there are enough professionals at the hospital to treat those with abnormal pap smears,” says Dr Fiolet.

“We rely on volunteers to administer specialist women’s health services, including screening and treatment, and to ensure that our full-time staff receive up-to-date training. This benefits both individual patients, and the community. In return, volunteers have an opportunity to gain experience by working on difficult cases and connecting with other healthcare professionals from around the world,” says Dr Fiolet.

In 2017, The Tshemba Foundation opened the Hlokomela Women’s Clinic to provide healthcare specifically for women and young girls in the Limpopo and Mpumalanga area. The clinic provides a variety of services including pap smears, cryotherapy, breast ultrasounds, pelvic ultrasounds, abdominal ultrasounds and pregnancy ultrasounds, with the aim of reducing rates of breast and cervical cancer in the area.

Virtually all cervical cancers are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). In South Africa, the HPV vaccine was only introduced into the national immunisation programme in 2014, through a school-based roll-out, which focused on girls in Grade 4. Women living with HIV are six times more likely to develop cervical cancer, and at a younger age, which means they often leave young children behind, presenting a dual challenge to the country’s healthcare system, given the high rate of HIV infection.

To ensure that women in Acornhoek and surrounding areas have access to critical specialist care, The Tshemba Foundation is calling on women’s health specialists to sign up to volunteer and make a difference. While the volunteer programme is best suited for longer stays, there are short-term opportunities available that can accommodate busy schedules while still maximising the impact of volunteering at Tintswalo and the local clinics in the area. To find out more, visit www.tshembafoundation.org/volunteer-programme.  

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