My name is Emily Tembo and this is my story….
One day in 2009, Emily picked up an information brochure about HIV Voluntary Counselling and Testing (VCT) and she decided to go to her local clinic to be tested. Initially, her husband was reluctant to go with her, but Emily insisted they both go for the testing, particularly because he had suffered from tuberculosis. At the VCT clinic, Emily tested positive for HIV. A few months later, Emily watched a community sensitization drama on cervical cancer, and it made her think about going for screening. It took her a while to go to her local clinic for the screening because she had heard that it was a painful process. ‘The first time I went for cervical cancer screening, I came back home because I was scared. But I finally plucked up the courage to go back,’ she says. Emily adds that apart from the fear of a process she believed was painful, she was also scared because she had watched her elder sister succumb to breast cancer after undergoing a mastectomy (breast removal surgery). Her sister died young and left a three-year-old son who Emily looks after.
I have not only been treated successfully for cervical pre-cancerous lesions, but I am also living positively with HIV.
When Emily was finally screened for cervical cancer, her cells were found to be pre-cancerous. She was immediately referred to the Cancer Diseases Hospital (CDH) where she underwent a procedure to destroy the abnormal cells and where she was put on oral medication. At the time she was diagnosed, Emily was going through a difficult period at home. Her uncle (her father’s brother,) with whom she lived with, had inherited her father’s property when he died. Emily, her sisters and their children all lived with her uncle on the property, but he suddenly became very hostile. ‘My uncle’s attitude towards me changed when I told him about my HIV status. He would say that the people living in his house were bringing diseases into his home,’ she remembers.
Because of her uncle’s reaction to her HIV status, Emily did not mention that she was being treated at CDH and that she was on medication. Emily found she had no one to talk to about her illness and so she now understands the value of having someone to share these feelings with. This is the reason she spends several weekday mornings working as a volunteer counsellor at Matero clinic which is now a hospital. When counselling patients, she gives herself as an example of someone who is not only living positively with HIV but who has also been treated successfully for pre-cancerous lesions because she found the courage to go for screening.
Emily who is also a Zambian Cancer Society volunteer says that the uptake for cancer screening is encouraging: ‘Some of the women I counsel come to me and thank me for encouraging them. They come and tell me that they went for screening because I encouraged them,’ She also acknowledges that there are challenges because of the misconceptions people have about cancer. ‘Some women believe that cervical cancer opens up the insides such that a woman who is unable to conceive will do so after she has been screened. And then there are men who believe that cancer in general is a woman’s disease,’ she adds.
The main message Emily gives to the women she counsels is that they owe it to their children to go for screening because, if they succumb to cancer, no will raise their children for them. She encourages the women to go and find out the truth in order for them to move forward.
Emily now lives in rented accommodation with her husband and children and when she is not counselling, she earns a living braiding hair.
*This story (edited) is from the book “Nthano Zathu: Breaking The Silence On Cancer In Zambia” – a Zambian Cancer Society publication written by Ellen Banda-Aaku and first published in 2015.