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An Unseen Disease

Cervical cancer is the most common cancer among women in Zambia, with an average rate nearly double the global average. Wanga Zulu, a 46-year-old Zambian actress and mother of five who was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2014, now uses her platform and status as a survivor to raise awareness about the disease and encourage women to be screened.

Article by Brooke Romine, Global Health Intern August 24, 2022 //   8 minute read

Wanga Zulu, a 46-year-old Zambian actress and mother of five who was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2014, now uses her platform and status as a survivor to raise awareness about the disease and encourage women to be screened. 

Cervical cancer is the most common cancer among women in Zambia, with an average rate nearly double the global average. Cervical cancer has the highest mortality rate of any cancer in sub-Saharan Africa, partly because women living with HIV are up to six times more likely to develop persistent precancerous lesions and progress to cervical cancer. These women often experience more aggressive forms of the disease and higher mortality.  

But because of the Go Further partnership, which works to increase cervical cancer screening and treatment of precancerous lesions with an emphasis on the most susceptible populations, women living with HIV in Zambia have the chance to live fuller, healthier lives. Go Further is a public-private partnership between the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the George W. Bush Institute, UNAIDS, Merck, and Roche which aims to end AIDS and cervical cancer in sub-Saharan Africa within a generation.  

The Bush Institute has partnered with Zambia since 2011 to reduce deaths from cervical cancer and has extended its commitment through Go Further. Leveraging the systems already in place through PEPFAR has enabled prevention, screening, diagnosis, and treatment to lessen the burden of cervical cancer on both individuals and communities.  

Since 2018, the Go Further partnership has completed 644,887 screenings in Zambia. First-time screenings accounted for 85% or 545,581 of the total completed.  

Ms. Zulu sat down with [Janet Chinyama, former CIDRZ Communications Officer, CDC] to share her story. This interview was edited for length and clarity.  

Tell us about what is important to you. 

WZ: My children. They come first.  

Tell us about your journey with cervical cancer, screening, and treatment. 

WZ: It was a very painful journey, which I wouldn’t want to wish to any woman out there. I discovered I had cervical cancer in 2014. I can say that I had heard about cervical cancer screening, but I just brushed it off thinking, why should I even go for screening? Why should I even get that disease? I didn’t know that I was going to have it, and it was the saddest day of my life when I discovered I had it.  

I found out that I had it [cervical cancer] while I was on set. I developed a watery discharge. I kept going to the bathroom to have a shower because of the discharge. I didn’t understand it. I went to different clinics and I was just given medication and told it was a normal discharge. Until it got worse. It kept on coming out and this time it was smelling. So, I asked my sister-in-law, she is a lab technician, about [the discharge], and she advised me to go to the clinic. Later called and asked me if I’d gone for cervical cancer screening. I laughed about it, but she told me, “No, it's important, you have to go, just check, find out what is happening.” So, the following morning I went to the clinic for the screening. They found a growth that had covered my vagina. I was referred to the UTH (University Teaching Hospital). They checked me, and I was told I would have to go for an operation to check on the growth. I went through the operation, and they got a piece of it, and it went to the lab. I waited for some time until the results came out. Unfortunately, the results came back that I had cervical cancer.  

It was so sad for me, and the first thing I thought of was death. I cried in the doctor’s office, and I thought of leaving my children, the last born was only 7 years old. What came into my mind was, who am I going to leave this little one with? The doctors encouraged me and said, “No, it's fine.” I was in stage two, 2B [which was treatable], but still it wasn’t an easy thing to accept. I knew I was dying now. This was the end of my life.   

So, what was your experience at the clinic? 

WZ: The experience was OK. The nurses were good, the doctors were good, even my fellow patients. The ones I found there went through the same treatment. But one thing that wasn’t good was the machines, because they kept breaking. I started my treatment, and the machines would break down and, since I was remote, I would have to stop treatment for some time, maybe weeks, and then they would call you back and you would restart the treatment. But, otherwise, I can say the treatment was good.  

Who were the people who supported you along the way? 

WZ: My family. When I discovered that I had cancer, I didn’t want to spread the news. I only told one friend, Anne Katamanda, a fellow actress, because she is a very good friend of mine.  

My second born used to escort me to the hospital every day. I can say the whole of my family supported me and because of that my second born is now a nurse. She saw how I struggled and instead of me crying because of the pain, she is the one who used to cry. Each time I would reach the hospital, I would tell stories and make the other patients laugh while I was in pain. I used to feel much better that way. My daughter would cry, “Mommy, please keep quiet. You're in pain. You can't be talking and talking.” But I would say, “no, I feel relieved.” 

What are your dreams, having gone through cervical cancer, for your community? For the world? 

WZ: My dream is to see a cancer-free world. I wouldn't like to see anyone out there go through cancer, any form, any type. It is a very painful disease, and the sad fact is that it doesn’t show. It doesn’t give any signs. By the time you find out you have it, it is already spreading. I wouldn’t want other people to go through what I went through.  

What messages do you have about cervical cancer or cervical cancer screening?  

WZ: Women, please do not ignore this disease. It’s a terrible disease. Go out there and get screened. Don’t be like me. It is better you know what is going on in your body than going through that disease [cervical cancer]. I regret that I ignored [screening]. I was that person who said, why should I have that disease? Where would I even get it from? I didn’t know I was going to have it [cervical cancer]. I urge every lady out there to go for screening. Don’t wait until it's too late.