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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Scoring Against Cancer: Belay Fernando Shares Inspiring Journey in Fighting Cervical Cancer

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Despite being a preventable and curable disease, cervical cancer is responsible for a large burden of suffering in women around the world. In fact, in the Philippines, roughly 12 Filipinas die from this disease every day. Imagine, every 2 hours, a family loses a loved one – a mother, wife, sister, or friend. This makes cervical cancer a health issue relevant not only to women but also to society.

This is why Belay Fernando de la Cruz, a former player, and coach of the Philippine National Team for Women’s football, shares her personal experience with cervical cancer to raise awareness about this silent killer of Filipinas. Belay’s journey has been transformative, and she wants to tell her story in the hopes that it may inspire and encourage others facing a similar fight.

How cancer changed her life

Belay never imagined herself transitioning from the football pitch to the hospital bed undergoing treatments. Her cancer diagnosis in 2018, served as a profound wake-up call and compelled her to prioritize health as never before.

“When I got confirmation that it was cancer, the first thing that came to mind was ‘Could I have prevented this?’” Belay thought. “I should’ve gotten checked earlier, maybe if I wasn’t so busy neglecting my health, I could’ve seen this coming,” she narrated.

“It took multiple tests before I got the final diagnosis, Stage 3-B Cervical Cancer. I took the news hard and I broke down.”

Belay was hospitalized for a month due to complications. But perhaps the hardest challenge she faced was realizing that her cervical cancer had changed her body so much that she could no longer do what she loved, which was sports. She developed neuropathy because of her cancer treatments. She still has neuropathy in her feet until now, so she can’t kick a ball like she used to before.

As someone who started playing football when she was just 12 and the only person in the family who pursued a professional career in sports, learning that her condition affected her physically to that extent was a tough pill to swallow.

Empowering women to protect themselves from cervical cancer

Cervical cancer is primarily caused by persistent infection with high-risk types of the human papillomavirus (HPV). The importance of HPV vaccination and screening cannot be overstated in the prevention and early detection of cervical cancer. HPV vaccination not only protects against the most common cancer-causing strains but also reduces the risk of developing precancerous lesions. Screening methods such as pap smears play a crucial role in detecting abnormalities in cervical cells at early stages when treatment is most effective. Regular screening combined with vaccination efforts can significantly reduce the incidence and mortality rates associated with cervical cancer.

“I always tell people to do their pap smears regularly. To get checked and not be afraid to find out what’s going on with your body. Because if you know it, then you can control it, and you can do something about it,” she shares.

“Many of us know that with cancer, the earlier you catch it, the better your chances are. And with cervical cancer, you can even prevent it by vaccination so take advantage of that.”

Advocating for cervical cancer elimination

Central to Belay’s story is the solid support of her family, who stood by her side, providing strength and comfort during her most challenging times. Their commitment motivates her to recount her journey as a source of hope for others.

Belay considers herself an advocate of cervical cancer elimination by raising awareness about the disease, the importance of prevention through vaccination and regular screening, and lastly, aiming to address the stigma surrounding reproductive health issues.

“I believe there’s a misunderstanding when HPV is equated with an STD. So, I see it as a stigma,” Belay noted. “I believe it’s prevalent in most individuals, lying dormant in some and manifesting differently in others. Perhaps there’s a genetic predisposition to cancer, considering my family history – my mother and her sister both had different types of cancer. Therefore, it’s crucial to undergo regular screening because early detection of pre-cancerous lesions enhances the preventability of cancer.”

She also mentioned that one of the main problems in supporting cervical cancer, or cancer in general, is the lack of information. She thinks that if more women knew how to prevent it and if preventive programs were strengthened, we would have a better chance of fighting cervical cancer.

Belay’s advocacy is aligned with the World Health Organization (WHO) targets for cervical cancer elimination, which aim to achieve 90% HPV vaccination coverage by 2030, along with 70% screening coverage and 90% access to treatment for cervical pre-cancer and cancer. These targets emphasize the importance of comprehensive prevention and treatment strategies to combat cervical cancer on a global scale effectively.

Cervical cancer doesn’t have to be a death sentence. Despite facing a difficult journey, Belay is now a voice of hope and enjoying a new lease on life. She is now mentoring the younger generation as a football coach, transforming her challenges into strengths and opportunities, proving that life continues beyond cancer.

Through candid conversations, Belay confronts the stigma surrounding HPV and cervical cancer, advocating for a shift in societal attitudes towards these diseases. Her advocacy aims to destigmatize the disease and foster a culture of proactive healthcare practices, ensuring everyone has access to necessary care and support.

Belay also emphasizes the importance of HPV vaccination as a critical tool in preventing cervical cancer and achieving the goal of eliminating it. “We need to empower women to understand that the HPV vaccine is the best way to prevent cervical cancer from happening. By getting vaccinated, individuals not only protect themselves but they’re also contributing to reducing HPV-related illnesses in society,” she shares.

Through her advocacy, she hopes to empower the community to take action to promote a safer and healthier future for Filipino girls and women.

Learn more about Belay Fernando’s inspiring journey and her advocacy for greater awareness and action for cervical cancer elimination. Watch her video here.

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