Cervical Cancer, the Speculum and Me
The day had dawned normally, I woke no differently than I usually did, but thirty was meant to be a big deal, so I decided to give myself a different kind of gift – a cervical cancer screening. In the spirit of the day, I may have spent a little more time picking out a dress as the children got set for school, but it was more likely that the effort had been indulged in for the sake of the PTA meeting scheduled to begin at 10am.
For this birthday I sought knowledge, and the agency which it would endow me with. So, I primed my ears as the doctor spoke to a hall filled with women, telling us the benefits of getting this test done. He then reeled off the criteria each of us needed to satisfy to be able to perform the test.
- Must have completed your monthly cycle at least 48hours before the day; check.
- Must not have had intercourse in at least 24hours; double check.
In addition, we would each get our breasts examined for lumps, even if the conditions for the cervical cancer screening were not met.
A quarter of the assembly hall had been cordoned off — arranged into makeshift partitions for the exam. I took a deep breath and approached.
“Lie on your back and fold your legs up at the knees,” the medic said.
I tried to keep my mind away from what she was likely going to do next as she instructed me to grab my ankles close to my bottom. I tried not to see the speculum her gloved hands reached for. I failed on both counts.
As the cold metal negotiated the short space between us, I held on tight to the edges and pressed my body to the examination table. This was meant to be quick and I didn’t intend to prolong it. The woman paused her dilation of my orifice when she felt my body stiffen, and then relax.
I thought about the last time I had a speculum inserted in me for the purpose of an HVS. The only way to get the swab was to dilate the cavity and reach high (or deep) enough. And the speculum loomed large! The doctor in the mini theatre had, at my discomfort, turned to her colleague and said, “some women fear an ordinary speculum even though it is smaller than the penis that had put them in the position to need a speculum.”
In my defence and in defence of all women who feared any procedure that required bodily invasion, I had tapped my doctor and said, “It’s not about size, my sister. It’s just because the thing (pointing at the speculum) is not flesh.”
At this, the women had giggled and laughed. And from that moment, the process was easier to conclude for all involved.
But this wasn’t a test for a probable infection. This instead was a screening to ascertain that I wasn’t at risk of getting the one cancer that could be caused by a virus. And when proved negative, I could have the choice to take the vaccines to prevent HPV which could lead to Cervical cancer.
While the woman worked, I turned my face away briefly. Through the curtained partition, my eyes caught a view of another medic working on a parent I wasn’t very familiar with. The work looked very serious – she seemed to be kneading the woman’s breast like unyielding dough. Or more like I would knead fufu, especially if I wanted to keep it white like my grandmother encouraged. This would involve turning the cassava meal from the pot on fire into a wide tray just as it got thick and ready, and then massaging the white and off-white parts into one so as to achieve a uniform colour and consistency. But surely that medic was squeezing the breasts too much, I thought to myself.
Done with my screening, the medic promptly moved her hands to my breasts. At this, I smiled and declined, telling her that I did monthly breast self-exams after each period. She simply said “Oh,” and discharged me, to my greatest relief.
In a recent conversation with my friend Onajite, I came to realise I wasn’t the only one uncomfortable with having my insides poked, albeit for a good cause. Jite, as she is fondly called, recounted how horrified and abused she felt to have one doctor poke her while making idle conversation about the weather (of all things). As if the idle chatter would erase the fact that her body was being invaded.
Judging from the look on her face as she retold this tale, I knew it was no jest when Jite asserted that she had been tight-lipped throughout the procedure. Unable to pretend or hide her embarrassment, she had been impatient for the woman to finish the exam and end the torment which she understandably didn’t see the need for.
I’d heard about this cancer that was caused by a virus (the HPV) and could be sexually transmitted. In fact, I had seen posters announcing a cervical cancer screening in church a few weeks before that PTA meeting. But I had not taken it seriously till Rev Sis Jacinta informed us of the screening she had organised for mothers and other females in the school. Sis Jacinta came across as stern — she suffered no fools lightly, especially if they were adults — yet she was extremely loving to the children under her care.
And even though her leg swollen from elephantiasis was the most conspicuous part of her (seeing as it could not always be hidden beneath her nun’s apparel), this didn’t stop her from being agile or dedicated to her job as school head. Always in over-sized slippers to accommodate the ailing leg, she could be seen walking around the classes from time to time. I imagine she was also equally feared and loved in the convent which adjoined the school. But I always wondered why she chose to bring that cervical cancer talk and screening to the school.
Many months later when she took ill and her school admin duties were assigned to another reverend sister, I felt sorry for her and wondered if her Elephantiasis had begun to act up, and she needed more serious treatment than the herbal remedy sessions she had once a week at the convent. I wondered also if she was receiving orthodox treatment for the said foot or if she was still doing herbal treatments.
Then came the news that Rev Sis Jacinta had passed on, after battling Cervical Cancer. At this time, I wondered no more.
My daughter — who had only recently gone off to boarding school — came home that holiday and before I could inform her, asked me if it was true that her former school head had died. She told me that she had vehemently argued with the rumour mongers in her school that it couldn’t have been Sis Jacinta. She cried and curled into herself for a few days after I told her that the news was true.
After Sis Jacinta, I also lost a mother figure to this debilitating illness. And that was one strong woman who bore the pain stoically till the end. With an ever ready smile and kind words, Adefunke Sofowote sang and rejoiced when her body gave her respite, and even when it threatened to buckle as cancer ravaged her, she insisted that life was experiencing; no happening was bad, they were simply all experiences which required that we make the most of them.
But how uncanny is it that a virus can cause cancer? Or that a woman can get this virus through sex? Or be infected by the hands, lips and genitals of a partner? As we say on the streets – woman dey suffer, o!
I am told most male and females get the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) at least once in their lifetime. The HPV causes warts, and usually goes away after a while, but the scary part is that anyone who has had sexual activity can get HPV. Fortunately, however, not all the HPV strains actually cause cancers.
I’m told it is also possible to get cervical cancer from non-sexual means. But what’s important is to get the Pap smear done every couple of years.
The burden of womanhood appears to worsen as we grow older. Yet we have to bear these weights stoically. Therefore, the Pap smear is one test that any woman would want to be negative in, whether she is of child-bearing age or not. One good thing, though — having been declared negative, I get to take a vaccine to keep the HPV virus; and cervical cancer at bay.
So, have you had a Pap smear lately?