On Friday, 11 February, at the Neuroscience Institute at Groote Schuur Hospital, the University of Cape Town (UCT) Gynaecological Cancer Research Centre (GCRC) welcomed more than 120 attendees to its celebration of World Cancer Day. The occasion was marked with a screening of Conquering Cancer, a feature documentary aimed at showing the world that global cervical cancer elimination is possible.
Despite being on the brink of elimination, more than 600 000 women develop cervical cancer each year. Of that number, 300 000 are lost to the disease. This loss of life has innumerable repercussions for both the women’s families and their communities, leading not only to a breakdown of the family unit but also spiralling cycles of poverty.
Conquering Cancer introduces viewers to the medical professionals and policymakers who are working towards eliminating cervical cancer through medical interventions and socio-economic programmes.
The film follows a number of women across the world, from Australia to Malaysia, Zambia, Colombia, Switzerland, and the United States of America, documenting their experiences with cervical cancer. It highlights the dichotomy between the outstanding innovations that are paving the way towards the global elimination of the illness and the effects it has on the health and economic well-being of the world’s poorest women.
“Cervical cancer is one of the only cancers we’ve figured out.”
According to Dr Kathleen Schmeler, a professor in the Department of Gynecologic Oncology and Reproductive Medicine at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, “Cervical cancer is one of the only cancers we’ve figured out. We know what causes it, we know how to screen for it, we know how to treat pre-invasive disease. So, really, no woman should be dying of cervical cancer.”
The assistant director of Cancer Control in the Zambian Ministry of Health, Dr Sharon Kapambwe, highlighted what the elimination of the illness can do for women and the world at large. “Conquering cancer means a world with women who are empowered to do other things and are not succumbing to a disease, and are then able to give their full potential to their families and to this nation,” she said.
This attitude and approach are archetypical of all of the researchers, doctors and cervical cancer survivors who are featured in Conquering Cancer. As a result, the film conveys a triumphant message: through global cooperation, we will be able to overcome this preventable disease and save the lives of countless women in the future.
The chairperson and moderator, Professor Lynette Denny, who is the director of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) and UCT GCRC as well as the head of obstetrics and gynaecology at the university, noted that there were two points that warranted the celebration of this World Cancer Day.
First, the World Health Organization (WHO) has called for the elimination of cervical cancer by 2030. “This is a really important programme and may well work to galvanise the world’s energy to stopping this preventable cancer,” she said. In addition to this, Professor Denny acknowledged that the event was an opportunity to celebrate and discuss the issues around survivorship.
Denny also thanked the SAMRC for its ongoing support of the GCRC. “Particularly, we would like to thank the SAMRC. We at the GCRC have been funded by the SAMRC for the past five years and are very much hoping to continue this work as we go into the future. So, thank you to them for the very generous and supportive funding.”
Focusing on quality of life
The Head of the Gynaecological Oncology Unit at the University of Pretoria, Professor Greta Dreyer, was the first speaker on the programme. Professor Dreyer, who has produced a plethora of educational publications around ovarian cancer and has vast experience in the management of cancer risk, focused on how patients survive treatment for ovarian cancer.
Survival, she noted, is not simply about being alive following a course of treatment, but is intrinsically linked with quality of life for the patient.
To ensure the highest quality of life for survivors of the treatment of ovarian cancer, Dreyer suggested a balanced approach on the part of medical professionals.
“There are many allied healthcare disciplines that can really assist us and our patients.”
“We should be honest, but at the same time, we need to be kind. We should be patient – both with the disease and our intervention – but at the same time we must be brave. We also need to be informed as healthcare workers and work as a team, as there are many allied healthcare disciplines that can really assist us and our patients,” she explained.
Radiation oncologist in UCT’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Dr Nazia Fakie emphasised the importance of quality of life for cancer survivors and the role of healthcare professionals in enhancing this quality of life.
“There have been many studies that show cervical cancer survivors specifically have worse quality of life than other gynaecological cancer survivors. It is therefore imperative that we are aware of the long-term side effects that follow radiotherapy. We need to address these issues prior to treatment, during treatment and, especially, following treatment,” she said.
“We need to provide support for both the lifestyle changes and the psychological effects that occur following radiotherapy treatment. What is most important here is to talk to your patients.
“Although it’s easier to put them on the bed and examine them, we actually need to talk to them. To ask them about their symptoms and probe for more information. While there is some information that they will volunteer, specific questions usually need to be asked about things like sexual health. We need to get comfortable with talking to patients and asking these questions because at the end of the day, it will improve their quality of life and therefore our quality of care,” she added.
Eliminating myths and fears
Finally, Dr Nomonde Mbatani, an obstetrician and gynaecologist at UCT’s Private Academic Hosptial, spoke about the myths and fears about cancer among women in South Africa. Many of these myths and fears, Dr Mbatani said, revolve around the causes of cancer as well as the survival rate of those who develop the illness.
“We know that cancer is a public health problem and is one of the leading causes of death. However, people need to be reminded that heart disease and respiratory disease remain the leading causes of death globally and in South Africa.
“Many cancers that were once thought to be incurable can now be cured, thanks to new diagnostic and treatment techniques. We see now that the survival rate for most cancers is about six to seven percent,” she said.
This understanding, Mbatani explained, is essential for lowering the feelings of fear and anxiety that patients who are diagnosed with cancer may have and therefore better equipping them to deal with the illness.
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