I have a friend called Kami. She’s been my friend since I was six. That’s over a quarter-century of friendship. She prefers to be called by her full name, Mukami, but she makes an exception with me because we’ve known each other for most of our lives and it’s late for me to change her pet name. I know her mother and I can still report Kami to her years later.
I’ve gotten my tenses wrong as I’ve told this story because the more accurate description is that I had a friend called Kami. Had in the past tense. A past that feels like the present which I can’t quite seem to process. I still keep on referring to her in the present. So far, only one person has dared to correct me but they too soon gave up, because there’s no other way to say that Kami is gone for good. There just isn’t. All I want to hear is her voice. I’m willing to overlook logic, the laws, and the rules of nature even science as long as I have her back.
I was at her memorial service a week ago, and her mother held me as we silently gazed out into the horizon, because what could we say? Kami was 29. She had the world ahead of her. We had so many things we were planning to do together. Many times we had lost bets to each other and had the naming rights to each other’s children. We hoped that our future spouses would one day understand. They probably wouldn’t but that was their problem, not ours.
What happened? Kami had lost the battle to cervical cancer. “How does a 29-year-old die of cervical cancer? How?” I asked myself because her demise made little sense. I know there’s no better age to die, and no cancer more appropriate than the other but how was cervical cancer something that would happen to a woman in her 20s?
I first heard about cervical cancer during an internship in 2014. I worked in an organisation dealing with bioethics in research and we put together a focus group to find out how people felt about the introduction of the HPV vaccine. I didn’t care much for the survey though, because the topic was of no interest then. I was there to learn hands-on communications skills and of course to make money. My worldview, I admit was very narrow then. Plus, I reasoned, “what does cervical cancer have to do with me, as a man anyway?” The information was for the holders of cervixes, and not me.
Looking back, I definitely should have had more interest. Why do I say so, you may ask? Genital HPVs is predominantly sexually transmitted. As with any other STI’s men are implicated in the chain of the infection. Acting both as “carriers” and “vectors” of HPV, male partners may be important contributors to the risk of developing cervical cancer in their female partners. As men, we’re the primary spreaders.
However, this very reason also explains why it’s harder to talk about cervical cancer because once you tie anything to sex, it stops becoming an empathetic conversation on health and turns into a conversation on morality.
It’s shocking that the only cancer in the world that’s preventable through early screening, treatment, and the HPV vaccine, kills over 3,000 Kenyan women annually. This sorry state is due to existing myths and misconceptions and like most things that involve women, we don’t think it is worth our time.
This explains why there is no open dialogue to support cervical cancer sufferers. Women, most times do not screen due to fear of what they believe the results to mean. There are cases of women who develop cervical cancer and keep the information to themselves fearing stigmatisation. Additionally, in low-income settings, where men are controllers of the purse strings, some men may not support women seeking out cervical health services.
Only 16.4 per cent of women aged 30 – 49 years have been screened for cervical cancer and this means that there are many other Kami’s out there whose lives could be saved. That is if they get tested early and if the men in their lives get more information and interest on cervical cancer. I couldn’t save Kami’s life but maybe you could change yours.
For the men, let’s play our part to make sure we fight HPV and cervical cancer.