It was winter 2017, and Marija Ratkovic was in love and had a trip to the Dominican Republic coming up. Then a diagnosis of cervical cancer and surgery to remove her uterus turned her world upside down.
“I fell madly in love and for the first time realised who I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, to live with and raise children with,” the 35-year-old freelance journalist told BIRN. “Two weeks later, when I was given the diagnosis of cervical cancer, I felt like I had been struck by thunder.”
Now Ratkovic has turned her ordeal into a documentary produced by VICE, in the hope it will raise awareness in Serbia about how the disease – the fourth biggest cause of mortality among women in the country – can be prevented.
Serbia has among the highest incidences of cervical cancer in Europe and it frequently proves fatal.
The title of the 40-minute film, ‘One and a half women, each day’ (Jedna i po zena, svaki dan), refers to the damning statistic that around 500 women die annually of cervical cancer in Serbia, out of some 1,300 who are diagnosed with the disease every year.
Such numbers are blamed on irregular check-ups with a gynaecologist that means the disease is often not caught at an early phase when it is most treatable. Serbia also lags behind much of the rest of Europe in the use of a vaccine – available in the country since 2016 – that prevents some human papilomaviruses that can lead to certain cancers, including cervical cancer.
Ratkovic, well-known among readers of VICE Serbia and Elle Serbia for her writing on lifestyle, love and feminism, was diagnosed in January 2017 and three months later her uterus was surgically removed.
She was not a regular visitor to the doctor, an oversight she put down to a lack of time, money and any apparent indication something might be wrong.
“I see myself as a feminist and generally a responsible woman who looks after herself,” Ratkovic said. “But it happened – I hadn’t seen my gynaecologist for six years.”
Life after diagnosis
The film takes viewers through Ratkovic’s deeply personal fight with the disease, exploring her feelings and the choices she faced.
It shows her visiting the hospitals where she was treated, talking to doctors, scientists and government officials in search of answers about prevention, treatment, public health, discrimination in healthcare and the way in which women in Serbian society are often blamed for falling ill.
Returning to the places she knew only as a patient was emotionally hard, she recalled. Though the film helped her come to terms with the disease, Ratkovic said she often became depressed or frustrated during the making of it, wondering if there was any point to it all.
But the feedback and questions she received from women and girls who read her articles on cancer, reproductive health and healthy living kept her going, she said.
“The documentary gave me closure in the very painful process of facing the trauma,” Ratkovic told BIRN. “It helped me realise that I have really learned something and, more importantly, that I can pass it on to everyone else.”
“My goal was not to frighten people but to demonstrate to them through first-hand experience that there is life after the diagnosis. Our film is much more about all the things we can do in advance, such as living healthily, doing tests and regular check-ups and having great and safe love and intimacy.”
There are no quick fixes, she stressed. “It is not like visiting a service centre for computers or cars. Surviving cancer means changing your mindset and your life completely.”
|Ratkovic wants to encourage greater dialogue about the importance of reproductive health through her writing and social media. Photo: Ivana Cutura|
A graduate of Belgrade’s Faculty of Architecture and PhD student in Theory of Arts and Media, Ratkovic is a well-known columnist in Serbia for a number of outlets including VICE Serbia, City Magazine and Elle Serbia.
Her topics range from love to feminism and sexual taboos, but also cancer and how it prompted her to change her life, touching on issues such as healthy eating, alternative medicine and the role of psychotherapy in cancer treatment.
Her first book is due out later this year and a short film she co-wrote, Punta Cana, made its international debut at Palm Springs International Short Film Festival on June 24.
As for the future, Ratkovic wants to encourage greater dialogue about the importance of reproductive health through her writing and social media.
She wants also to promote sexual education for parents and children, regular medical check-ups, the importance of healthy living, an active role for women in decision-making and to raise awareness of HPV vaccines that can prevent certain types of cancer.
“The key thing for me is to conduct a word-of-mouth campaign, because I realised that it is much better than a top-down, hierarchical approach, as many people are resistant, as I was.”
Crucially, said Ratkovic, Serbian society must get over the stigma attached to talking openly about sex and sexually transmitted diseases.
“I always say that sex saved my life, as contact bleeding [which can occur during sexual intercourse] is one of the important symptoms [of cervical cancer],” Ratkovic said.
“So on the one hand, sex is being satanised, but on the other hand sex is always an indicator of whether everything is functioning well.”
This article was published in BIRN’s bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight. Here is where to find a copy.