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Conquering cancer in Kenya: Visiting the inspiring women of KILELE Health

By Lisa McGovern, Executive Director, Congressional Families Cancer Prevention Program | Published on October 16, 2023

“I’m afraid of getting screened for cancer because what if I have it?”

That’s the reason some people give for not following cancer screening guidelines. In August, I traveled to Nairobi, Kenya, and met with the inspirational women of KILELE Health who are challenging that thinking with respect to cervical cancer in a creative way: summiting some of Africa’s most challenging mountains, including Mount Kenya, to prove that cancer is not a death sentence. When detected early, you can not only survive – you can thrive!

Lisa McGovern (left), Executive Director of the Prevent Cancer Foundation’s Congressional Families Cancer Prevention Program with Benda Kithaka, KILELE’s executive director.

KILELE’s work (“Kilele” is the Swahili word for “peak” or “summit”) climbs beyond simply inspiring and educating women and girls about cervical cancer. With the support of a global grant from the Prevent Cancer Foundation, KILELE is working to reach 40,000 Kenyans in Mbeere, a rural, resource-poor, hard to reach part of Embu, Kenya. The program engages with the community and provides human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccinations, cervical cancer screenings and treatments. These efforts also address myths and misconceptions hindering women’s access to lifesaving, preventive health care. Cervical cancer is the leading cause of deaths in Kenya, with more than 3,200 dying annually. This high mortality rate leads many women to avoid screenings for fear of death, leading to later diagnosis and poor outcomes.

During my trip, I met with KILELE’s executive director, Benda Kithaka, a powerhouse health advocate with a welcoming smile and infectious energy. We were joined by Mary Nyangasi, Head of the National Cancer Control Program who enthusiastically reported that she discovered Prevent Cancer Foundation’s screening quiz and shared it widely throughout Kenya. I also met cancer survivors Jane Kabaki, Kui Karur and Pamela Savai who affirmed that, “cancer does not define me.”

Climbing mountains is not for the faint of heart and the survivors who participate in these ascents often have never done it before. Their courage is not just personally transformational; it helps to destigmatize cervical cancer and impacts countless lives. In the words of mountaineer Conrad Anker, “The summit is what drives us, but the climb itself is what matters.”

KILELE is playing a meaningful role in shaping the future of health care in Kenya. With increasing awareness campaigns, improved access to HPV vaccinations and enhanced screening programs, the nation is making significant progress towards combating this disease. By empowering women with the knowledge about routine screenings and the benefits of early detection, KILELE is creating a path toward a future where cervical cancer becomes a preventable tragedy rather than a too frequent reality. 

Not long ago, a vaccine to prevent cervical cancer would have been merely a dream but it became a reality in 2006. There has been a national roll-out of HPV vaccines since 2019 in Kenya, but it has been disrupted by misinformation and vaccine hesitancy. As a member of the Prevent Cancer Foundation team, it was an honor and a pleasure to visit Kenya and see firsthand the work of KILELE Health to combat those obstacles and see the impact of our global grant to reduce cervical cancer there.

 

Learn more about the Prevent Cancer Foundation’s global grants program.

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