It began as a rash spot around her breast and then her back began to ache. The rash and ache persisted for several weeks but Debbie (not her real name) ignored them. It was perhaps a heat rash, which did not need a doctor when she could buy some powder and a painkiller from the chemist.
After applying powder on the rashes and taking painkillers for some time, the spot began to swell, turning reddish while portions around her breast thickened.
The back pain became worse, a situation which made her more worried. She became alarmed and therefore, decided to report her medical condition at the hospital.
After diagnosis, she was told she had breast cancer. Before any effective treatment could be ministered, Debbie passed away.
Debbie’s sad tale is just one of many that some women ignore at their peril.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), cancers of the breast and cervix kill more women than any other form of cancer in the world, especially in developing countries.
However, cervical cancer is easily preventable and treatable, by the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccine while the early detection of breast cancer also greatly increases the chances for successful treatment.
The WHO 2013 Global Health Estimates indicated that more than 508,000 women died in 2011 owing to breast cancer alone.
The WHO also estimates that breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer in women while cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in women with an estimated 530,000 new cases every year.
The world health body, further states that every year, more than 270,000 women die from cervical cancer — with more than 85 per cent of these deaths happening in low- and middle-income countries.
With the basic components of cancer control which include prevention, early detection, diagnosis and treatment and palliative care, there is the need for intensified advocacy to educate women and girls on the disease.
To have a good cancer programme, Africa also requires strong leadership, involvement of stakeholders and creation of partnership and application of systems approach for decision making in order to respond to the fight against reproductive cancers on the continent.
A burden on Africa
For such reasons, the efforts by the Forum of African First Ladies against Breast and Cervical Cancer to lend support to the continental fight against health conditions is commendable.
The Forum of African First Ladies against Breast and Cervical Cancer initiated by Princess Nikky Onyeri, a breast cancer survivor from Nigeria was established in 2007 to lead the campaign against reproductive cancers on the continent with focus on mobilising the support of African leaders and authorities to fight the diseases.
The forum was created to increase awareness of prevention, treatment and palliation of reproductive systems through its annual conferences dubbed: “Stop Cervical, Breast and Prostate Cancer in Africa (SCCA) and other advocacy programmes”.
The eighth edition of the SCCA conference was held in Windhoek, Namibia, on the theme: “Moving forward to end cervical cancer by 2030: Universal access to cervical prevention,”.
It was attended by 18 first ladies from across Africa, including Ghana’s First Lady, Mrs Lordina Mahama, ministers of health, parliamentarians, medical experts and other stakeholders.
The three-day conference held under the auspices of the First Lady of Namibia, Mrs Penehupifo Pohamba, discussed cancers of the reproductive systems as a step to the development of strategic actions that would help in the reduction of these cancers.
The conference also solicited high-level political commitment and support against cancers in Africa, as well as recommended innovative solutions to improve prevention, diagnosis and management of cancers.
The first ladies made presentations on the efforts being made by their governments and themselves to combat reproductive cancers in their respective countries.
“Africa’s capacity is weak”
The conference began with an opening ceremony which was addressed by the President of Namibia, President Hifikepunye Lucas Pohamba.
He urged African governments to co-ordinate interventions and reinforce one another to effectively expand and modernise healthcare delivery on the continent.
The Director-General of the WHO, Dr Margaret Chan, said Africa's capacity to detect, diagnose and treat cancer was traditionally weak.
With cases of cancer on the rise, she said, it was time for the continent to step up to the challenge and added that cancer was no longer a death sentence.
Presenting Ghana’s responses to cancers at the conference, Mrs Mahama said a five-year strategic plan was to be implemented to control cancers in the country.
After three days of presentations and discussions, a declaration was adopted and signed by the first ladies to intensify advocacy for adequate human, technical and financial resources to achieve universal access to the HPV vaccination, treatment and care for cervical, breast and prostate cancers.
It was a noble idea for the first ladies on the continent to have pledged their commitment to fight reproductive cancers.
However, what is important is the sustainability and ability for them to deal with the diseases. Unfortunately on the continent, due to economic constraint, some projects start well with funfare but they die out shortly after opening ceremonies.
In their quest, the first ladies should focus on generating internal funds and other resources to sustain their initiatives to lead the campaign against reproductive cancers, instead of looking up to developed countries for assistance.