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Benda Kithaka
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Benda Kithaka

HEALTH

Cervical Cancer: Deadly Yet Preventable

We talk to Benda Kithaka, a Health Policy Advocate & Founder, Kilele Challenge at Kilele Health

BY Agnes Amondi

Jan 23, 2023, 07:59 AM

Photo of

Benda Kithaka

Photo by

Benda Kithaka
Nine women die every day from cervical cancer, 15 get diagnosed daily and the disease is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the country.  

These statistics underscore the burden of cervical cancer despite it being a treatable and preventable illness. 

Benda Kithaka, a Health Policy Advocate & Founder of Kilele Challenge at Kilele Health is leading efforts towards the elimination of cervical cancer. She has an extensive portfolio of work in this area which she has been widely recognised for.

We talked to Benda to find out more about her work and quest to eliminate cervical cancer.

YAZA: Introduce yourself and tell us how you got to where you are.

BK: I am a health advocate, trained in political science and also in marketing, communication and strategic management and health systems strengthening. I came into the field from a personal experience. My sister was told she had cancer but that was not the case. It was a pre-cancer. 

That got me into digging deep into cervical cancer and through that, I realised that with improved communication, cervical cancer wouldn’t necessarily devastate our women.

That’s how I ended up where I am. Working with women and men to sensitize and build capacities for them to understand that cervical cancer is preventable if discovered early.

YAZA: Did you know much about cervical cancer before?

BK: I never had any information but stumbling on some after my sister was told, was an aha moment. I realised that this disease is preventable and understood the need for men and women to take action. With my background, I knew there was something I can do and that’s why I do what I do.

YAZA: Kilele Health works with cancer survivors and caregivers. Why is it important to have their voices in this conversation?

BK: My work with Kilele Health primarily focuses on empowering survivors and caregivers to own and tell their stories. This is a tool for social and behaviour change communications and I’ll explain why.

Personalised stories are powerful. When you hear anecdotal data about somebody going through cervical cancer and you can’t relate to it, it doesn’t really hit home. But when a story is told and you can actually see yourself or your loved one in that story, it makes a difference. 

You stop looking at it as something that happens to them and it becomes about us. It stops being an action for them to take, it becomes about the role each of us has to play. That’s why Kilele works with survivors and caregivers. 

They hold critical information that can be passed on from one generation to another and sends the message that I went through this journey, but it need not be yours. That’s the first reason we work with survivors.

The second one is, in Kenya and in Africa, when somebody has gone through a cancer diagnosis, has been treated and has gone through the journey, they are usually told to go back home to their usual. But the question we ought to ask ourselves is, what is that usual? 

How do you get somebody who has lost a body organ to a disease to go back to her usual? How do you get somebody whose community has ostracised her because of fear and stigma of cancer, her husband has left and has been impoverished by disease, to go back to her usual? 

It’s no longer life as usual. It’s about finding new ways of surviving and thriving in spite of it all. At Kilele, we empower survivors and caregivers to own their journey, and process of recreating a life beyond all these things and enable them to pick up the pieces and start fresh.

YAZA: Nine women die daily from cervical cancer. 15 get a diagnosis and it's the leading cause of cancer deaths in the country. Why is this the case?

BK: First of all, with the statistics, annually, these are the numbers - over 5,200 women are diagnosed and over 3,200 die from it. The reason why we need to pay attention to these figures is that these are not the actual numbers we’ll get if we were to do population-wide research.

These are the women who have come to the system and are recorded as diagnosed with and treated for invasive cervical cancer. There are other women who are treated for precancerous conditions before they are fully diagnosed with cervical cancer. 

In this country, women will visit a facility over nine times before they are actually diagnosed with cervical cancer. So how many women give up before they get to the ninth time and are diagnosed? This shows that the numbers could be bigger.

Why is this the case? One of the biggest contributors to the high mortality rate is an awareness that doesn’t translate into action. As policymakers, we know that cancer is one of the leading causes of death in Kenya.

We know that it is treatable and fully preventable with the vaccine, screening and early detection and treatment. But how well do we follow up with women who are diagnosed early to make sure they get treatment? How often do we take action to prevent, get an early diagnosis and seek early treatment? The majority of cancers are discovered late.

We even have a community saying that what you don’t know doesn’t kill you. It’s a lie. With cervical cancer, what you don’t know could be the cause of your death. Cervical cancer takes time and that time could be time used to prevent it. 

YAZA: You work closely with communities. What kinds of myths and misconceptions hinder them from taking action?

BK: Let’s start with the one I have already touched on - what you don’t know doesn’t kill you. That’s a lie. There are also a lot of misconceptions about HPV (Human Papillomavirus Vaccine). The vaccine has been proven to prevent cervical cancer through numerous scientific research and years of use. 

What I can say is that we all have a role to play in spreading the correct information about HPV vaccination, sensitizing women on the need for early detection and timely treatment and creating capacities and capabilities for women to prevent it. 

YAZA: The HPV vaccine was launched in the country in 2019, how effective has it been in terms of uptake?

BK: For that to be a question I can respond to effectively, we need to talk about the circumstances in which the vaccine was introduced. It was launched in 2019 and right after, we had a major setback with COVID-19 and thus, we had to contend with what COVID-19 was doing to the healthcare system.

With that in mind, the uptake has not been as we wanted it to be which is 90 per cent of all eligible girls vaccinated. But there is hope and the hope is that today we can act and get girls to own their health, think through their vaccination and give men and women the opportunity to prevent it. That's my rallying call to parents, women and girls because we want to give a legacy of prevention.

YAZA: Talk to us about the Kilele Challenge.

BK: I am very proud of Limo, our cancer prevention champion because he is a man who has taken action and decided to build critical voices for prevention. He is an architect by day and an ultra-runner so he is busy. 

Despite that, he has taken it upon himself to create awareness and get people to relook at cervical cancer not just as a women’s disease but as a disease that affects everyone and I am super proud of him.

In December, Limo summited Mt. Kenya five times in two and a half days. That was amazing. In fact, he wants to do the challenge again and summit Mt. Kenya 10 times, which was the goal. 

Beyond that, he raised over Ksh 270, 000 which will be used in getting access to information and interventions for prevention. It’s a drop in the ocean but if we can do something with such amounts of money, what can others do? So it’s a call to action for everybody to do something.   

YAZA: Let’s talk about the treatment of cervical cancer. How affordable and accessible is it?

BK: Treatment of cervical cancer at the precancerous stage is the cheapest thing you’ll find. But because the majority of our women are diagnosed late, when the chances of recovery are minimised, the cost becomes phenomenal. Hence, I’ll give two pieces of advice. 

Firstly, register for the National Health Insurance Fund (NHIF) which will cover you for any eventualities and will help you afford treatment. Secondly, get diagnosed as early as possible because this is how we can manage the cost of cancer treatment. Early, timely diagnosis, and treatment lead to better outcomes.

YAZA: You advocate for the elimination of cervical cancer. How far are we from that?

BK: Wow! That’s an interesting question. I advocate for elimination. How far are we? I’ll answer it this way. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has called for the elimination of cervical cancer but for that to happen, we do need to be aware of the milestones we need to take as a country and region to prevent the dire outcomes that we have. 

Some of the things that I challenge all of us on, is, for example, thinking about barriers to access of the vaccine for our girls in order to equip our communities for prevention, barriers at the community level and equipping people with this information to make critical decisions. 

We are only as far as we are willing to take action, but remember cervical cancer doesn’t wait. We have to take action to prevent and build the case for prevention