It was a cold winter morning in 2013 when doctors at the Mongar regional referral hospital told Jigme Choden, a farmer from Rongthong village in Trashigang, that she has cervical cancer.

Soon after the doctor gave the results of stage I cancer, the mother of six broke down. She was 48 then.

“The word cancer came as a shock to me and I thought that I would die any moment,” she said. “I felt numb. I couldn’t understand how I got the disease.”

Fours years later, Jigme Choden is a healthy person today. The 52-year-old is a cervical cancer survivor. She underwent 25 radiation therapies and five chemotherapies in two months.

“When people heard that I was referred to India for treatment, many thought I would not return,” she said. “But doctors said it was not late for me to undergo treatments. With a hope to recover, I went to India.”

Today, Jigme Choden is convincing women and girls in her village to get tested for cervical cancers. “Although I was told about the risk from such diseases, I never took it seriously. Most of the time it was because I was too shy to get tested,” she said. “Because I was shy and reluctant, it nearly cost my life.”

About 160 people took part in a two-day awareness programme on cervical and breast cancer that Bhutan Cancer Society (BCS) organised in collaboration with the health ministry and Rural Education and Development (READ) Bhutan.

The awareness programme that ended yesterday was held to improve access to prevention of breast and cervical cancer services for women and girls in rural communities.

It provided services like Pap smear tests for cervical cancer and self-breast examination techniques. A non-communicable disease screening was also conducted.

BCS programme officer, Tenzin Yangden, said that less participation from the public during such programmes was one of the biggest challenges. “Since healthcare is free here, people take things for granted.”

She said that most women and girls are reluctant to come forward to give the Pap smear tests fearing that they might be detected with the disease.

Of the 93 participants who turned up for the programme on the first day, 41 gave the Pap smear test of which 20 tested negative for cervical cancer.

The programme officer with READ Bhutan, Kezang Choden, said that because the issues are not openly discussed in rural communities, most people assume that without conducting the tests, they will not be diagnosed.

She said that when such initiatives are taken, people are opening up and coming forward to conduct tests. “Usually the second day of the programme sees more participants. This shows that people who go home spread the message.”

Along with the Pap smear tests, participants were also taught techniques on self-breast examination. It is a monthly check-up of one’s breast for possible chances of developing breast cancer.

Tenzin Yangden said not many women are aware of the techniques. She said that globally 40 percent of the diagnosis of breast cancer is through self-breast examination.

Similar programmes were also conducted in Punakha, Sarpang and Ura in Bumthang where around 160 women came forward for Pap smear test. The team will visit Khotakpa in Pemagatshel and Panbang in Zhemgang this month.

Canada Fund for Local Initiatives, a Delhi-based Canadian High Commission office is funding the project.

Younten Tshedup | Trashigang