In Malawi, Africa, women in overcrowded hospital wards lay dying from cervical cancer. A shortage of beds forced many to lie on the floor. They had no pain medication. They were dying long, agonizing deaths.
Psychologist Geoffry White, PhD, who has an interest in international humanitarian causes, decided to do something about it.
"I couldn't believe 200,000 women worldwide were dying needlessly every year when--if detected early--all these lives could be saved," says White, who learned about Malawi's cervical cancer epidemic from doctors he met after working on a humanitarian mission in Bosnia.
So, the Los Angeles psychologist made it his mission to bring attention to cervical cancer in Africa by helping to develop a program model for screening and treatment of the disease.
Today, from his office at his private practice, he continues his fight against a killer thousands of miles away, and he hopes this project model will be replicated in other developing countries.
This psychology practitioner is reaching beyond traditional therapy to help improve health care. "There's no reason why psychologists can't be more involved in any aspect of health care," he says.
Building a cervical cancer pilot model
In 1997, White approached Project HOPE, a nonprofit international humanitarian organization, to help him launch a three-year pilot program in Malawi for the early detection and treatment of cervical cancer. Through the program, nurses and other nonphysician health-care workers are trained to administer a low-cost, basic screening called visual inspection of the cervix, which uses acetic acid (basic household vinegar) to detect abnormalities.
So far, one out of 10 women evaluated in Malawi has needed treatment. "That means 10 percent have the precursor to cervical cancer," White explains. Women who then need treatment receive cryotherapy.
"It has saved lives--there's no question about that," says Cary Kimble, director of development at Project HOPE. Kimble credits White for bringing this issue to Project HOPE and making it come to fruition.
"He has certainly taken a much more active interest than what we usually see," says Bettina Schwethelm, PhD, director of maternal and child health programs for Project HOPE.
Cervical cancer, easily detectable and treatable if found in its early stages, is the most common cancer in African women. In Malawi, nearly 80 percent of cancer cases in women are attributed to cervical cancer, and only 15 percent of those women receive treatment during the treatable stages, according to Malawi cancer data.
White's interest in Malawi first began shortly after he returned in 1995 from Bosnia, where he conducted war-trauma treatment procedures and psychosocial programs for Balkan refugees.
"After Bosnia I was very upset," White says. "So, I decided I could either go into massive denial of what was going on in the world or I could get another project."
He got another project. White helped to raise $20,000 in a concert fund-raiser to help start the pilot program. However, fund raising for the project has been challenging. "[The project has] been ongoing for the last three years at somewhat of a lower scale than what we would have liked," Project HOPE's Kimble says.
Cervical cancer isn't viewed in America as a major health threat since screening and treatments are more prevalent and accessible, so trying to raise funds and make people realize the severity can be more challenging, he says.
Overcoming cultural barriers was another obstacle in starting the project, particularly in dealing with the men in Malawi. In a culture where the men are the dominant figure in the household, project organizers needed men's permission for women to be evaluated and treated. White says they held focus groups to educate the people on cervical cancer in the hopes that men would grant permission.
White considers his humanitarian work an aspect of bringing world peace to different areas across the globe. There is an unexplored potential and opportunity for psychologists to work with humanitarian organizations, he says.
"Psychologists are missing the boat by not getting involved. I'm just one guy and look what I've done. We could multiply that by 100 and do some amazing things."