The mahati mission know cervical cancer to beat it

Cervical cancer does not get the limelight often, despite India topping the list globally.

Bengaluru: Swarupa Kakumanu, a seasoned IT professional, never imagined that she would start an NGO to combat the only preventable cancer among all female genital cancers. Cervical cancer does not get the limelight often, despite India topping the list globally.

“This is the only 100% preventable cancer, transmitted sexually through a virus, carried by men. I call it the most forgiving of cancers as it has no symptoms and gives a 10-year window before turning cancerous. Even breast cancer can only be treated but not avoided," Swarupa said, wondering why else no one had been working to fight it.

Her research brought her to the understanding that women and men were not aware of it, even in cities. It has been seven years since she quit her full-time job and poured all her energy and resources to form Mahati Trust to make Karnataka a cervical cancer-free state.

Rural areas were Mahati's first target, starting with Chikkaballapura district. The initial reaction of the locals was one of fear and a taboo with the word 'cancer'.
“We did a pilot study, motivating rural women to come to the awareness and screening programmes. They were sceptical first, but then came for the screening which involves the Pap Smear test," Swarupa, secretary of Mahati, said.

Every week, since 2011, Mahati has been religiously conducting screening sessions, roping in local volunteers.

“We started with one Public Health Centre that has 40-50 villages attached to it. So far, we have covered 250 villages under 5-6 PHCs. In my experience, not all PHCs have a doctor, but the fact is that you don't need a doctor to conduct the Pap Smear test," she said. “A para-medic can conduct it. It involves inserting a tool into the Vagina and taking a sample of cells from your cervix," she said.

The next step for the NGO is to send the samples to Kidwai Institute of Oncology for testing. Those women who test positive for cervical cancer are brought for treatment to M.S. Ramaiah Hospital in Bengaluru.

India reported 27 cervical cancer cases per one lakh women, based on registered information. What about the rest who are not aware of it? Mahati's grassroots level data collection reveals that out of 15,000 women, 50 tested positive in rural Karnataka.

“The number is not any rosier in cities. I take awareness programmes to corporate companies and find that none of the women and men are aware of it.

As there are no symptoms in the first 10 years, it tends to get ignored until it becomes cancerous," she said.

Interest shown by Union Cabinet Minister Ananth Kumar's wife Tesjaswini in Mahati's work was a shot in the arm. “We made a 15-minute short film with a story, creating awareness about cervical cancer. It was launched by Tesjaswini and Mr Ananth Kumar last year. However, funds still remain a problem for us as the money comes from family and friends," she said.

The Trust is trying to convince the government to take up this initiative for long-term sustainability.

“Parallel efforts by the government will help increase the volume of screening tests and treatment. 15,000 is a large number for us, but instances of women diagnosed with cervical cancer are alarming. There is a need to intervene on behalf of the younger generation as well," she said.

Since sexual activity can begin in teenage, Mahati Trust raises awareness in schools to educate girls about preventive vaccination, which is however, not fool-proof.

The biggest challenge for Mahati now is the need for sustainable, long-term funding and volunteers. The large volume of ground level work makes people apprehensive, though some passionate citizens like Swarupa are not bogged down by it.

“Though I call cervical cancer the most forgiving one, it is something no woman would want to have. Once tested positive, there are holes in the uterus, uterine tract and a foul smell that can be detected as soon as the patient walks into a room," Swarpua said.

This is unfortunately when people wake up to the looming danger, though it could have been prevented entirely, with a test every few years earlier.

( Source : Deccan Chronicle. )
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