PROFILE: Benda Kithaka, strategic and resilient in pushing for cervical cancer elimination
KILELE is the Swahili word for Summit – born from a personal desire to find my utmost purpose in advocacy while inspiring others to live their best life now.
In 2019, after the launch of the HPV Vaccine, I was grappling with depression; having witnessed firsthand health inequities:
• Cancer is expensive and leaves families impoverished.
• Some treatments have major side effects.
• Stigma in survivorship.
• Women cancer survivors’ vulnerabilities – some lose jobs, husbands, and body organs, with lasting adverse effects.
• There is the fear of recurrence, more expenses, and higher risks of death.
Technical Working Groups (TWGs) offer platforms to join hands with other experts and design solutions to cancer control. Some milestones include:
• Co-chaired Prevention Pillar for writing the National Cancer Control Strategy 2017–2022; used in decision-making at National Cancer Control Programme (NCCP) in Ministry of Health.
• Supported by the American Cancer Society, we spearheaded the formation of the STOP Cervical Cancer Initiative, a committee within NCCP.
• In January 2019, championed the development of the 1st National Cervical Cancer Elimination Week; now an annual advocacy platform within MoH.
• On the National Vaccines and Immunization Programme Advocacy Communications and Social Mobilisation (NVIP-ACSM) team, I was involved in the introduction of the HPV Vaccine.
• Cancer Ambassador, Year 2016 by Eddah’s Hope. The award came at a time when I was tired and wanted to end the six years of volunteering. The award showed that Kenyans believed in me, so I stayed and amplified my advocacy.
• The Selma Morris Memorial Travel Award 2017 by the American Association of Cancer Education (AACE) led to a trip to the USA. I visited World-Class Cancer Centers. The experience, what I saw, and the vision it created was mind-blowing!
• WE CAN Advocacy Award 2017. It had a small monetary award. We used it to host County First Ladies to a breakfast in November 2017, signed an MOU in January 2018; and CFLA formally took up Cancer Advocacy in Kenya. Today, from this small seed, we have EMPOWER Cancer Clinics in 8 Counties. Plans are underway to grow the numbers.
• IGCS Distinguished Advocacy Award 2019. Until then, I had never heard of the International Gynecologic Cancers Society. It was humbling to have our footprint and my consistency being recognised globally.
• Zuri Awards Health Category Nominee 2021. Coming so soon after establishing KILELE, it’s an affirmation of the gap we fill.
My 3C model:
• Be Curious – probe beyond common knowledge to discover the core issue; and craft solutions. We have so many layers to peel off on the onion called women’s health. A diagnosis with clinical depression for a woman in Kenya is very different from someone in the USA. Their realities are worlds apart. Similarly, therapy will work differently on each. We need solutions that take into account local environments.
• Be Coachable (teachable). Become a sponge for knowledge. A sponge in a dirty pond will sieve the clear water and leave out the dirt. Sometimes you will be selected to fill a gender quota. Learn as much you can so that when your time comes to be present, you will REPRESENT all women. Never allow your lack of knowledge to be the reason they dismiss your arguments.
• Love – Love of God, self and others. Advocacy helps me extend the compassion I feel towards that one person whose suffering I have encountered to envisage solutions that will positively impact many more.
• Honesty – I maintain integrity in my dealings, recognising that I am successful because people trust my intentions and my words match my actions.
7. If you were given a chance to create a new world for the generation behind you, what would you wish for?
• A world where we control modifiable risk factors through simple interventions – eat right, move more, rest enough, avoid the use of alcohol and cigarettes and guard your thoughts.
• A world that yearns for knowledge- Environmental risk factors can be addressed if we put people before profits. We have vaccines and health interventions for disease-causing vectors, and we could reverse adverse human effects on our environment, e.g. pollution and environmental degradation.
• Covid-19 has presented a golden opportunity for us to press the health equity reset button. With an advocacy for best practice, political goodwill and ownership for follow through on critical actions, it is now possible. We all have a duty towards health equity.