WHAT IS CERVICAL CANCER?
Cervical cancer is simply the rapid growth of abnormal cells on the cervix and if undetected, they become cancerous.
Cancer is a disease in which cells in the body grow out of control. Cancer is always named after the part of the body where it starts, even if it later spreads to part of the other body. When cancer starts in the cervix, it is called cervical cancer. The cervix is the lower, narrow end of the uterus which opens into the vagina. Cervical cancer is simply the rapid growth of abnormal cells (dysplasia) on the cervix. These abnormal cells grow fast and out of control, and if undetected, they can develop into cervical cancer and spread to other organs of the body like kidney, lungs etc. Cervical cancer is the second leading cancer disease after breast cancer. Although abnormal cervical cell changes rarely show any symptoms, early detection of these changes can result in successful treatment of cervical cancer.
1. Symptoms of Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer is a tricky disease in that at the early stage, symptoms are rarely visible, and when symptoms become visible, the cancer must have already developed and established itself. At this stage the patient begins to experience the following symptoms: (a) Unusual vaginal bleeding or unexplainable change in the menstrual cycle; (b) Bleeding during sex or when a diaphragm is inserted as a result of contact with the cervix; (c) Continuous and foul smelling vaginal discharge, which may be pale, watery, pink, brown or bloody. In advance stage of a cervical cancer, the symptoms include: back pain, bone fractures, fatigue, heavy vaginal bleeding, leaking of urine and faeces, leg pain, loss of appetite, weight loss, single swollen leg.
2. Causes of Cervical Cancer
Human papillomavirus (HPV) type 16 and 18 have been said to cause about 70% of cervical cancer globally. Although there are several other strains of the virus, not all of them are associated to cervical cancer, only the type 16 and 18 are known to be responsible for causing cervical cancer. The human papillomavirus (HPV) is usually transmitted through sexual intercourse with person(s) infected with the virus. Multiple sex partners and high risk sexual behaviours predispose an individual to infection by the virus.
3. Cervical Cancer Preventive Measures
: The boosting of the immune system to develop adaptive immunity reduces the risk of cancerous or precancerous changes on the cervix. Vaccines for cervical cancer prevention are not only available, but have been effective at reducing the occurrence of cervical cancer. These vaccines offer protection against the type 16 and 18 strains of the HPV. It is recommended for boys and girls between the ages of 11 and 26 years. It is important for boys and girls to take the vaccine before they start having sexual relations. The rationale behind vaccinating young boys is that though they cannot have cervical cancer, they can harbour the virus and transmit it to females. Therefore vaccinating them will prevent them from contacting the HPV. The vaccine available for the HPV is Cervarix® and is usually administered in 3 doses.
b) Regular Pap Smear Test
: One other important preventive measure for cervical cancer is a regular Pap smear test. Cancer screening through Pap smear can identify precancerous and potentially precancerous changes in cervical cells and tissue. The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends that women should have their first pap smear 3 years after becoming sexually active or by the age of 21 years, subsequent screening should be done every 2 years or annually. These regular screening detects any abnormal changes in the cervical cell immediately before they turn into cancerous cells. Women, who have had abnormal cervical cells, should be screen to detect infection with the HPV. Women within the age group of 65 – 70 years who have never had an abnormal Pap smear test in the last 10 years may discontinue the regular screening.
c) Safe Sex Behaviour
Since the HPV is transmitted through sexual contact, safe sex practice such as the use of condoms, avoiding multiple sex partners and abstinence are highly encouraged.
Cervical cancer is deadly and has already cost a lot of lives but it need not be so if it is detected early. We therefore encourage every sexually active female to begin screening through Pap smear test at least once in 2 years. Remember, early detection of abnormal cells growth in the cervix can be successfully treated. In addition, parents should ensure that their children and wards between 11 – 26 years take the HPV vaccine as a preventive measure. Have you been screened? Visit the nearest hospital or laboratory to you and request for a Pap smear test. Remember that prevention is better than cure.