Remember the famous saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”? This age old saying holds absolutely true for cervical cancer, a leading cause of cancer deaths in women. By the time symptoms develop and women realize that they are ill, it’s usually too late. While a regular check up can ensure a future free of cervical cancer, laxity can lead to a physically and an emotionally draining experience of battling with it.
According to the Cervical Cancer-Free Coalition, a preventable disease, cervical cancer kills more women in India than anywhere in the world, affecting 1, 32,000 women each year of whom 72,000 women lose their battle with it.
Most common in women over the age of 30, cervical cancer affects the uterine cervix, a part of a woman’s reproductive system. The cervix is a passageway that connects the lowest portion of a women’s uterus (womb) to the vagina. Cancer begins in cells, which are building blocks that make up tissues. Normal cervical cells in the tissues of the cervix grow and divide to form new cells, as and when the body needs them. These cells have a definite life span.
When normal cells grow old or get damaged, they die, and new cells take their place. Sometimes, this process goes wrong and new cells form when the body does not need them, and old or damaged cells do not die, as they should. The buildup of such extra cells often forms a mass of tissue called a tumor.
Scientists are not completely sure why cells become cancerous. However, there are some risk factors, which are known to increase the risk of developing cervical cancer. Human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted virus is responsible for about 99% of all cervical cancers. There are over 100 different types of HPV, most of which are considered low-risk and do not cause cervical cancer. High-risk HPV types may cause cervical cell abnormalities or cancer. More than 70 percent of cervical cancer cases can be attributed to two types of the virus, HPV-16 and HPV-18, often referred to as high-risk HPV types.
Other risk factors include, multiple sexual partners, becoming sexually active early, smoking, and people with weakened immune system, such as those suffering with HIV/AIDS or transplant recipients on immunosuppressive medications. Certain genetic factors, giving birth at a very young age, multiple pregnancies, long-term use of the contraceptive pill also raises a woman’s risk of developing cervical cancer.
Being a silent killer, symptoms of cervical cancer aren’t always obvious and it may not cause any symptoms at all until it has reached an advanced stage, where chances of survival are less and the treatment is expensive. Regular screenings are essential to combat this cancer before its spreads.
In most cases, symptoms develop when the cancer becomes invasive and spreads to nearby tissues. When this happens the most common symptom is abnormal vaginal bleeding or bleeding between periods. Other symptoms include bleeding after having sex, pain during intercourse, unusual vaginal discharge, leg pain and swelling and low back pain.
If diagnosed at an early stage, treatment is possible using surgery that is removal of uterus. Radiotherapy is an alternative to surgery for some. In some cases it is used alongside surgery. More advanced cases of cervical cancer are usually treated using a combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
Get vaccinated against HPV
Vaccines have been developed to prevent infection with some of the HPV types associated with cervical cancer. Currently available vaccines are intended to produce immunity to HPV types 16 and 18, so that women who are exposed to these viruses will not develop infections.
Reduce risk by regular check ups
Pap Smear Test
A pap smear is a quick, painless test used to detect early cell changes in cervical cells, which may later progress to cancer. Cells from the cervix are scraped and used as sample for a pathological analysis. A positive result for abnormal cells is confirmed by a coloscopy or a biopsy.
Simple vinegar test
With this test — called VIA, for visual inspection with acetic acid – sterile diluted vinegar is applied to a cotton swab and brushed onto the cervix. After one minute, normal tissue stays the same color — but cancerous tissue turns white. You only need a lamp to see it.
Padmashree Awardee, Dr. Malvika Sabharwal is the Chief Consultant Dept. of Gynaecology & Obstetrics, Nova Specialty Hospitals, New Delhi. After graduation from Lady Hardinge Medical College, she did her post graduation in Gynae & Obs. She completed her Hysteroscopy training with Dr. Wamsteker in Netherlands and Laparoscopic training with Dr. Adam Magos in U.K.