'I lost my womb to cancer, but I came out braver'

Savai Pamela, a cervical cancer survivor. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

When Pamela Savai was told that she had cervical cancer in 2019, she was shocked.

“How?” That was her first reaction. She never had any symptoms and had been going for annual screening from 2015. She only missed out in 2017 and 2018.

A free screening at Uhuru Park in January of 2019 showed something unusual and a pap smear was recommended. This led to a colposcopy – examination of the cervix using a camera-and finally, a biopsy.

“My doctor said the results showed I had cervical cancer – stage 1a,” recalls Savai.  

“Images of my body in a casket ran through my mind.”

The news hit Savai hard since she had no symptoms.

“I was not bleeding. I was not in pain. I had zero symptoms. I was shocked. I kept asking myself, ‘How come?”

After coming to terms with her diagnosis, she embraced the next step; treatment.

She had to undergo hysterectomy, the surgical removal of the uterus (womb), to save her life.

Kenya Obstetrical and Gynaecological Society (Kogs) recommends that women aged between 30 and 65 undergo cervical cancer screening every three years.

Dr Elly Odongo, a gynaecological oncologist and acting CEO at Kogs, says majority of cervical cancers are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). Other predisposing factors are early sexual debut, infection with HIV and exposure to cigarette smoke.

Common symptoms of cervical cancer include unusual bleeding, bleeding during intercourse, pain during intercourse, persistent pelvic pain, and increased vaginal discharge.

By the time symptoms show, chances are the cancer is past stage 1a and has most likely entrenched itself in the lymph nodes. Hysterectomy wouldn’t be of much help.

Unlike Savai, Annette Sagwa, another survivor of cervical cancer, did not go for frequent screening.

“Mine was discovered because I had a miscarriage (the third in a row) and was in hospital for womb cleaning,” recalls Sagwa.

“That’s when doctors found a growth. Prior to being diagnosed I had abnormal bleeding, back pain and pain during intercourse.”

Sagwa needed chemotherapy and radiotherapy because the cancer had advanced. Hysterectomy would not have helped.

Dr Odongo explains that hysterectomy is often recommended when the cancer is still in the early stages: between 1a and 1b2. Higher stages usually mean that the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes and hysterectomy is therefore unnecessary.

It also depends on whether the patient wants to have more children. With three children, two girls and a boy, Savai was done giving birth. She had also lost her husband in 2017.

She had a hysterectomy at a private hospital in Nairobi on April 29, 2019.

“I did not have reservations because I wanted the best possible chance of surviving cancer.”  

She says her life has not changed “apart from the scar,

“I don’t have physical pain. I do feel some discomfort during the times I am supposed to menstruate. But, of course, without a womb, there is no shedding of blood.”  

Savai even has a new hobby: mountain climbing. Looking back she says, “I am still the same woman. I look just the same way I did before.”

Surviving cancer was like a second chance at life and the reason she chose to advocate for cervical cancer screening. Savai joined Kilele Health – a non-governmental that campaigns against cancer.

Cervical cancer has a vaccine which President Uhuru Kenyatta launched on October 18, 2019. The HPV vaccine is available for free at government health facilities for all girls aged between 10 and 15.

Last year, Savai took her daughters aged 11 and 14 to get their first doses of the vaccine.

“Every parent should give their child age-appropriate sex education,” says Savai.

“It is better to be safe than sorry. Cancer kills.”