January is cervical cancer awareness month. Cervical cancer is a gender specific cancer because it affects only women. It is also the fourth most common cancer in women. In 2018, an estimated 570,000 women worldwide were diagnosed with the disease and about 311 000 women died from the disease.
This article will provide answers to questions like what are the risk factors and how they can be diagnosed.
What is cervical cancer?
It is a cancer that begins in the cells of the cervix. The cervix is an organ that is described as the neck-vestibule of the uterus and it opens on the outside to the vagina.
That the without the cervix it would be impossible to carry pregnancies to term? This is because the capacity of the cervix to “lock” when there is an ongoing pregnancy that allows the pregnancy to be carried to term. In fact, a significant part of the labor process is waiting for the cervix to “unlock” or ripen. This is known as “effacement.”
What are the risk factors for Cervical cancer?
The exact cause of Cervical cancer is not known, but data collected and research done has suggested that the following are significant risk factors for cervical cancer.
- Family history: As is the case with all non-communicable diseases, there is a significant genetic component to the expression of this disease. This means that if your grandmother, mother, aunt or sister has the condition, you are at risk for same.
- Age: The older a person gets, the more their chances of developing this disease. It’s observably rare for this condition to develop in people younger than 20 years of age.
- Sexually transmitted diseases: Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is a sexually transmitted infection and it is suggested that more than 78% (or higher according to some authors) of cases can be linked to an infection with this specific virus. While there are a large number of HPV types, those types, or strains, that are most frequently associated with cervical cancer are HPV16 and HPV18. Other sexually transmitted infections that have been associated with developing this disease include; Herpes simplex virus, Chlamydia, and HIV.
- Multiple Sexual partners: Having multiple sexual partners has been observed to be another risk factor for this disease.
- Parity: This refers to the number of full-term pregnancies that a woman has had in her reproductive life. The data from several studies have shown that the more pregnancies a woman has, the greater the risk for the disease. Another compounding factor is her age at the first pregnancy. First-time mothers at 35 or older were shown to have a higher risk.
- Oral contraceptive pill: Several studies have shown that the use of combined oral contraceptive pills for more than five years presents a risk for developing cervical cancer.
- Smoking: Smoking is a significant risk factor for almost all the known non-communicable diseases (NCDs) due to the fact it causes changes in the skin cells. Passive smoking (being around people who smoke) also carries similar risks for developing the condition.
- Obesity: It is important to understand that the hormonal changes that exist in an obese person increase the risk of developing cervical cancer.
What symptoms are associated with it?
- Bleeding or spotting in between periods, or abnormally heavier periods.
- Experiencing pain during or after sex- especially if it was formerly absent.
- Feeling a weight/mass in your lower pelvic region sometimes with lower back pain.
Can it be screened for?
- One of the screening tests is called a Pap smear. It’s a test that is typically recommended to be done by women who are at least 35 years old, though that hasn’t really applied in recent years. If the result is normal, you might not need to carry another test for up to three (3) years.
- HPV test/screening.
- Acetic acid visual inspection.
- Prevention of cervical cancer.The ways to prevent Cervical cancer are:
- Vaccination against HPV: This is usually recommended to be given to females from the age of 9, Some of the vaccines are:
- Non-valent vaccine
- Delaying the age of first sexual intercourse
- Practicing safe sex, and avoiding having multiple sexual partners or having sex with people that have had multiple sex partners.
- Quitting smoking and avoiding environments where people are smoking.
Based on the stage at which the diagnosis is made, the managing team will decide which of these will give the chance for the best outcome.
- Radiation therapy
So please, speak with your ObGyn about getting these vaccines for your daughters, educate them about sex and get yourself booked for a pap smear if you haven’t done one yet, and importantly share this information with your friends.
Remember, early detection saves lives.