Cervical cancer is the leading cause of cancerous deaths amongst women in India. According to WHO, cervical cancer is the fourth most frequent cancer in women worldwide with an estimated one million-plus women currently living with this condition. Last year, it caused 70,000 deaths in India, more than anywhere else in the globe. What is even more shocking is the fact that a cancer with effective vaccine is killing thousands of women.
This disease is a consequence of a long-term infection with human papillomavirus (HPV), the most common viral infection of the reproductive tract. HPV is sexually transmitted, but penetrative sex is not required for transmission. Skin-to-skin genital contact is a well-recognized mode of transmission.
It takes 15 to 20 years for cervical cancer to develop in women with normal immune systems. It can take only 5 to 10 years in women with weakened immune systems, such as those with untreated HIV infection.
Most importantly, we should keep in mind, the earlier cervical cancer is diagnosed, the more successful treatment for it can be. And, the fact that regular cervical screening can save thousands of lives every year.
Some facts to keep in handy for cervical cancer prevention :
Routine Pap Screening
A Pap smear is one of the best, first-line defenses against cervical cancer. These simple screening technologies can detect the majority of cervical changes associated with the development of cancer, allowing for earlier treatment when success rates are higher. A Pap smear is typically recommended a minimum of every three years.
Follow up on abnormal pap smears
If an infection is present, your doctor will treat you and repeat the Pap test at a later time. If the examination or Pap test suggests something other than an infection, your doctor will perform other tests to determine the problem. In some cases where women had prior abnormal Pap test results, doctors may also perform an HPV DNA test, which can detect HPV on a woman’s cervix.
Mainly two vaccines, Cervarix and Gardasil, are available to protect against the types of HPV that cause the most cervical cancers, as well as anal cancers in men. Your doctor can administer the vaccine in three shots over a six-month period. Gardasil is recommended for girls and women between the ages of nine and 26. Cervarix is recommended for girls who are nine years of age, plus women of any age who have not previously been vaccinated and have not previously been diagnosed with cervical cancer.
Practice safe sex
Studies have shown that women who have many sexual partners increase their risk of developing HPV and their risk of cervical cancer. Unprotected sex leaves you at risk for contracting sexually transmitted diseases that can increase your risk of getting HPV and greatly increase your chances of developing precancerous changes of the cervix. But while condoms help to lower the risk of developing cervical cancer, it is crucial to know that HPV can infect areas that are not covered by a condom, so condoms may not fully protect against HPV. That’s why it’s essential get the HPV vaccine in addition to using condoms.
Smoking cigarettes doubles your risk of developing cervical cancer. Studies have shown that tobacco by-products damage the DNA of cervix cells and may contribute to the development of cervical cancer. Smoking has shown to worsen the effect of HPV.
Seek medical help immediately in case of unusual changes in body. Women with early cervical cancers or at pre-cancer stage usually have no symptoms. Symptoms often do not begin until the cancer becomes invasive and grows into nearby tissue. If you have any of these symptoms, see a gynaecologist right away:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding, such as bleeding after vaginal sex, bleeding after menopause, bleeding and spotting between periods, and having periods that are longer or heavier than usual. Bleeding after douching or after a pelvic exam may also occur.
- An unusual discharge from the vagina − the discharge may contain some blood and may occur between your periods or after menopause.
- Pain during sexual intercourse.
As we mark Cervical Cancer Awareness Month this January, let us join hands to spread awareness about this often ignored silent killer.