Her own experiences of cervical cancer have led to Emily Monchojana, fondly known as Mam’ Emily in her neighbourhood of Orange Farm, in the far south of Johannesburg, to start a support and awareness programme for women in her community. She assists them to understand the symptoms of cervical cancer, its treatment, the importance of women knowing their bodies and going for regular pap smears. Often, Mam’ Emily uses her own story of having had cervical cancer to encourage the women.
“I am no longer a cervical cancer survivor. I am now a conqueror because I have beaten it. I never believed that I would reach the age of 50 because when I was in hospital the doctor told me that I was so sick and six months was enough (for me to live)”, she tells a group of women that has gathered to listen to her.
She has been cancer-free for nine years. This after she had been diagnosed with cervical cancer at the age of 38. When the doctors discovered her cancer, it had progressed throughout her body. Before her diagnosis, she knew something was wrong. She would go to her clinic, but each time she went she was sent away because her condition was not taken seriously.
“It started with me excreting lots of water from my vagina. When I went to the clinic they said nothing was wrong with me since I was not in pain. I went home, and then later I started having a bad discharge. Still, at the same clinic, I was sent away and told all women have discharges until one day I started excreting blood clots... lots of them without stopping. I filled a whole 5 litre bucket with it. Then I became weaker and pale. That’s when I was admitted (to hospital)”, says Monchojana.
Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in women worldwide. In South Africa, one in 26 women develops cervical cancer in their lifetime.
It is caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection that clears up on its own in most women. In others, the infection leads to cervical cancer. So, young women are advised to begin getting pap smears once they become sexually active.
Medical experts say that cervical cancer is steadily increasing even though it can be prevented or detected early by the simple procedure of a pap smear test. A pap smear test involves the scraping off of a few cells from a woman’s vagina or cervix to examine under the microscope for any evidence of cancer. Radiation Oncologist at Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital, Dr Tsholofelo Mutsoane, says the facility is currently treating about 700 cervical cancer patients or more a year.
“This is a big number. We are not the only hospital treating patients with cancer of the cervix. There is Pretoria that is also serving a huge number. If we were to combine statistics of both hospitals, we’d find an even bigger picture”, Mutsoane says.
More than half the women being treated for cervical cancer at the hospital show up with advanced stages of the disease, thus reducing chances of survival. Radiation therapy takes about six weeks, but some patients arrive so sick they don’t make it through the entire treatment.
“This saddens me. We see patients who come at such an advanced stage of cancer. We are not able to get it early so that we can have 90% of results being good. That would be my dream come true”, says Dr Mutsoane.
The HIV/AIDS epidemic has contributed to an increase of cervical cancer. It is also starting to occur in younger women. Over the years, it’s been generally viewed as a disease of middle aged and older women. But doctors say they are seeing women, much like Emily who was 38 at the time her cancer was diagnosed, showing up with severe symptoms.
Back in mam’ Emily’s support group in Orange Farm, two women now in their 20s and 30s, say they are convinced to go for pap smears.
“I was always told at the clinic that I should come when I was 35 years old, but now I know that’s not the case. I am sure I am not the only woman who thought this was true. But, now I have knowledge and information and I can encourage others even younger than me to go do it”, says one.
“I have learned a lot. This means I have to go back to all those people who wanted to do pap smears and I would discourage them and tell them to wait for 30. I think we should have greater awareness in our community because people are sitting at home sick, not knowing what is wrong with them”, adds another.