Cervical Cancer – All You Need to Know

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According to a survey, cervical cancer forms 16.5% of the total cancer cases in women in India. After breast cancer, it is the second most common type of cancer amongst women in the country. In 2018 alone, India registered 96,922 new cases. Though we’ve all heard of cervical cancer, not many of us know what it is, how it’s caused and how it can be prevented. Today, as we celebrate National Cancer Awareness Day (7 November), we aim at educating our readers on how to prevent, find and treat cervical cancer. Always remember, you’re not alone in this battle. With periodic cervical screening, any kind of abnormal cell changes can be detected, and your road to recovery will be much smoother.

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Cervical Cancer Definition

As the name implies, cervical cancer is a form of cancer that affects the cells of the cervix, which is the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). The virus is usually transmitted through sexual contact. Though the body’s natural immune system can prevent the HPV virus from causing severe harm, in some women, the cells in the cervix tend to become cancerous. Both men and women can be infected with HPV. It can be present for years without causing any symptoms.

Since most women in India are reluctant to have cervical screening, the cancer tends to grow in the cervix. If not diagnosed and treated in time, it can spread to other parts of the body and become deadly. The different stages of cervical cancer include:

  • Stage One: The cancer is found only in the cervix
  • Stage Two: Cancer has spread beyond the cervix but hasn’t spread to the pelvic wall
  • Stage Three: Cancer has entered the lower third of the vagina, and may or may not have spread to the pelvic wall and nearby lymph nodes
  • Stage Four: This is the most advanced stage of cervical cancer. In this stage, the cancer may have spread to the bladder, rectum and other parts of the body.

Symptoms of Cervical Cancer

Most women in India seek treatment for cervical cancer only after it has advanced. However, cervical cancer is difficult to detect in the initial stages because it does not involve any pain or visible symptoms. It becomes apparent only after the cancer has advanced. That being said, here are a few signs you can watch out for.

Note: If you’re experiencing one of the symptoms, it does not mean you have cervical cancer. Before jumping to any kind of conclusions, always show yourself to an experienced practitioner.

  • Vaginal bleeding after sex or exercise
  • Heavy vaginal discharge with a foul odour
  • Frequent, painful urination
  • Heavy periods that are longer than the menstrual cycle
  • Fatigue, loss of weight and appetite
  • Excessive swelling in the legs
  • Pain during bowel movements

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Risk Factors associated with Cervical Cancer

As mentioned earlier, the biggest risk factors for cervical cancer are having a high-risk type of HPV. But that doesn’t mean that anyone with HPV develops cervical cancer. It is mainly caused by HPV-16 and HPV-18. Some risk factors you should be aware of include:

  • Women who have multiple sex partners are at a high risk of developing HPV infection, which infects the cervix.
  • Certain studies reveal that smoking is also associated with cervical cancer
  • If you’re infected with HIV, you are prone to developing cervical cancer as well
  • Being overweight
  • Being younger than 16 at your first full-term pregnancy
  • A suppressed or weakened immune system
  • Family history of cervical cancer
  • Regularly consuming birth-control pills
  • Low-income status or lack of access to adequate healthcare facilities

If you’re experiencing any of the above symptoms or risk factors, we highly recommend regular cervical screenings to monitor your cervical health.

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Cervical Cancer Prevention & Treatment

We cannot stress enough on the importance of regular screening. Cervical cancer screening detects precancerous cells as early as possible. If there are any abnormal cells that have a chance to turn into cervical cancer, they can be treated. A lot of women are reluctant to undergo pelvic exams and screening as they fear the discomfort. However, you might experience only slight discomfort and cramping. Once your screening is done, you can continue your business for the day as usual.

As a woman, here are a few more things you can do to keep your cervix healthy:

  • Get regular wellness exams or PAP smear Consult your doctor before you undergo any kind of screening or tests. Generally, in a pap smear, cells are collected from the cervix. These samples are then examined to look for elements that are indicative of cancer or pre-cancer. All women starting at the age of 21 should go for a pap smear test every 3-5 years.
  • Get the cervical cancer vaccine. It is usually administered in three doses in pre-pubertal young girls. All women below the age of 26 should take the vaccine.
  • Besides a PAP smear screening and HPV test, your doctor might even conduct breast exams, and address other areas of your body including nutrition, pregnancy and birth control.
  • Limit the number of sexual partners.
  • Always practice safe sex whether it’s vaginal, anal or oral
  • Use condoms during sex to prevent the spreading of HPV
  • Quit smoking

While these are a few measures you can take to prevent cervical cancer, the most common forms of treatment in case the cancer advances include:

  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Surgery
  • Targeted therapy

In India, there is a lot of stigma around such screenings and cervical cancer in general. However, it’s in our hands to prevent and fight it, and encourage awareness programs. In certain cases, cervical cancer can also affect fertility and pregnancy. However, once it is detected, your doctor will talk you through different programs to ensure you are able to get pregnant in the future.

If you still haven’t scheduled an appointment with a primary care provider, do so ASAP. Don’t let fear affect your mental health. With adequate counselling, support groups and treatment, women of any age group will be able to fight cervical cancer.

 

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