At the Global Convening on HPV (human papillomavirus) organised by The Sabin Vaccine Institute in September (2023) in Kuala Lumpur, I stood before a diverse assembly of advocates, experts and policymakers, each of us carrying a shared burden of purpose to fight HPV and cervical cancer.
The atmosphere was electric, charged with determination and optimism, as we witnessed the launch of the Global Consortium on HPV.
It was a moment when the world converged in unity against a common adversary: cervical cancer, a disease that has silently taken the lives of countless women.
The emotions were palpable, reflecting the collective resolve to create a future where no woman suffers its devastating effects.
From patient to advocate
My own journey into the world of cervical cancer advocacy began on April 6, 2009.
A routine pap smear, a once-a-year ritual, had unearthed anomalies in my cervical cells.
I vividly recall the phone call from my father, a renowned gynaecologist, who bore the weighty news.
The following day, I sat in another gynaecologist’s office, who assured me that all would be well.
But destiny had different plans.
A mere two days later, I was informed that my condition was far more aggressive than initially thought.
A hysterectomy (an operation to remove the womb) was the prescribed course of action.
The surgery was followed by gruelling rounds of radiation and chemotherapy, trials that tested my physical and emotional endurance.
This period of my life was marked by fear, uncertainty and immense physical challenges.
But it was also a time when my resilience and determination were forged in the crucible of adversity.
I chose not only to survive, but to emerge from this ordeal as a fierce advocate for cervical cancer prevention.
It’s a journey filled with immense challenges, yet one that has given me a profound purpose.
My speech at the Convening was not just a reflection of my story, but a call to action.
It was a plea to the world, a plea driven by the staggering statistics that haunt us: a woman succumbing to cervical cancer every 90 seconds.
Cervical cancer is preventable through vaccination and screening, yet the global vaccination rate stands at a mere 21%.
It’s a stark reminder that despite progress, we have a long road ahead to achieve elimination.
Challenges to overcome
Advocacy is a complex journey, one that led me to the far reaches of underserved communities in Malaysia.
There, I faced the unique challenge of crafting messages that resonate with their specific concerns.
These communities often lack access to adequate healthcare resources and information, making them particularly vulnerable to cervical cancer.
This inclusivity is imperative if we are to increase HPV vaccine uptake and promote cervical cancer screenings among all women, regardless of their socioeconomic status.
The main challenge is getting women to come forward to be screened.
I’ve heard various reasons why ladies won’t go for pap smears, ranging from shyness and discomfort to cost, and also, an avoidance of unpleasant news.
I’ve found that people don’t want to talk about cervical cancer as there seems to be a stigma attached to the disease.
Education and awareness have to be increased in this country.
Women have to understand that anyone can get cervical cancer – it does not discriminate.
Some women I have spoken to don’t even know where the cervix is!
It is classified as an “embarrassing disease” due to where it is located.
This is something that has to be overcome, and only with education, will this happen.
The stigma has to be removed so that women, girls, and even husbands, brothers, fathers and friends can be educated, with the hopes of eventually eradicating cervical cancer.
But in that room, surrounded by individuals united in their commitment to change these statistics, there was a sense of hope.
The Global Consortium on HPV embodies our collective determination.
It is a platform where new ideas can flourish, innovative strategies shared and the voices of survivors can be heard by policymakers.
It’s a consortium of optimism, a force that transcends borders and inspires change.
Looking forward, my heart swells with anticipation.
Together, we will champion the cause of HPV vaccination, screening and early treatment.
We will strive for a world where every girl receives the vaccine, every woman has access to screening, and every life is safeguarded against cervical cancer.
I chose to vaccinate my children, including my son, so that they never have to endure what I did.
It’s a choice I hope more parents make, for in unity and shared resolve, we possess the power to break down barriers and shape a world where cervical cancer is a relic of the past.
The road may be challenging, but the destination is worth every effort.
We have the power to eliminate cervical cancer, to protect future generations of women and to redefine the future.
Let our shared determination fuel our journey, and together, we will create a world where cervical cancer is a thing of the past.