Saturday June 21 2014

The pap smear: A small price to pay

By Laura Walusimbi

I received a Watsapp message recently about free screening at a Kampala hospital for cervical and breast cancer. “Early detection saves lives,” the message stressed.

I immediately sent out messages to 20 of my contacts, figuring they would in turn send out to their contacts. And indeed, one of my friends replied to say she would be sharing the message with her friends, though she did not mention whether she would be going herself.

Of the 20 women I forwarded the message to, two had already done cancer screening and had been given the all clear. One said she would definitely go, and she did. Two others said they would make time to go for the free screening, but never did. One of the others said she was afraid to go and another implied she knew it was important to do the examination but was hesitant to.

Late to the show
Since the screening was free, I planned to be there by the start time because I knew there would be a long line. Unfortunately, I got there about 11 am, almost three hours after the screening began. As I had expected, there was a huge turn up.
A cursory glance revealed that most of the women were less than 40 years of age. A few of them had come with a friend but the rest of them were like me, alone and, as I found out through various random conversations with them, frightened.

The fear stemmed from the fact that they did not know what to expect. The ones I spoke to were doing the screening for the first time. When I told them I had done it before, they wanted to know especially about the Pap Smear test used to screen cervical cancer.

The Pap Smear is a little more nerve-wracking. During the Pap smear test, a nurse inserts a speculum into your vagina to enable them collect some tissue from the cervix with a spatula. This stage in the process is more uncomfortable than painful.

And the fear sets in
One of the women kept repeating to herself “I hope it doesn’t hurt”. She later told me she underwent a terrible ordeal after an operation to clear an obstruction in her fallopian tube and was in pain for days after. When it was her turn to register for the screening, however, she was told she could not have it done that day because she had just completed her menstrual cycle.

The breast cancer screening is less intimidating and is something a woman can do herself. Be knowledgeable about your breasts – how they feel and look at different times – in order to know what is normal. Regular checks, through self-examination and through a clinical breast examination, are especially essential for those between 30 and 50 years. Although breast cancer is rare in women under 30 years, it is recommended that they learn self-examination and perform it every month. Any noticeable change should immediately be reported to a doctor.

I had read in the handout we received that cervical cancer is the easiest female cancer to prevent through regular Pap smear tests and follow-up and no doubt this motivated me to get through the minor inconvenience. With over 200,000 women in Africa dying of cervical cancer annually this is a small price to pay, especially as it is highly curable when found and treated early.

It felt like the entire screening process for both the breast and cervical cancers took no more than 10 minutes. By the time I got to my car, there was no lingering discomfort. We were advised to pick up our results in two weeks’ time and that will be a story for another day.

Survival tips
• Read up about cervical and breast cancer or speak to your doctor. You can never have enough information about the diseases.
• If you are afraid to go for screening, go with a friend or relative for moral support.
• Relax during the screening! There is no pain involved – only some discomfort especially when you are doing the Pap smear test, and maybe a little embarrassment because you have to take your clothes off. But what is that compared to the relief when you confirm you are safe or when you catch the cancer early.
• Make sure you do not go for screening during or just after your menstrual period otherwise you may not get accurate results.