Contributed by: Abshar Faheem
Understanding cervical cancer
Cancer is a condition in which abnormal cells in the body grow and multiply uncontrollably. When cancer starts in the cervix, it is called cervical cancer. In other words, cervical cancer is described as a condition in which abnormal cells of the cervix begin to grow and multiply uncontrollably. Cervix connects with the lower part of the uterus( also referred to as the neck of the womb) to the vagina in the female body. Cervical cancer often begins in cells on the surface of the cervix.
Cervical cancer may affect the opening of the womb, deeper tissues of the cervix, and may spread to other parts of the body including the liver, lungs, vagina, bladder, and rectum. Before the introduction of screening tests and vaccines, cervical cancer was a leading cause of death among women. All women are at risk of cervical cancer but it occurs most often in women between 35 to 44. Women over the age of 65 are also likely to get cervical cancer and particularly those who have not got routine screenings.
Causes and risk factors of cervical cancer
Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) that can be prevented with an HPV vaccine. In India, the HPV vaccine is given until the age of 45 although the best time is between 9 to 13 years of age. The vaccination is highly recommended for all women till age 26 particularly when they are not properly vaccinated against HPV earlier.
Experts believe HPV is more effective when it is given before the first sexual intercourse. However, HPV is the same virus that can cause genital warts. HPV has 100 different strains but only certain types of long-lasting infections can cause cervical cancer. The two main strains that majorly cause cervical cancer are HPV-16 and HPV-18.
If you are infected with a cancer-causing strain of HPV, it does not mean you will get cervical cancer. Your immune system can remove a majority of HPV infections within two years. HPV may also cause other cancers in women including vaginal cancer, penile cancer, anal cancer, vulvar cancer, rectal cancer, and throat cancer.
HPV is a very common infection or virus that can be transferred through sexual intercourse and at least half of the sexually active people have HPV at some point in their lives although few get cervical cancer. However, certain risk factors may also enhance the chances of cervical cancer including,
- Having multiple sexual partners
- Weakened immune system
- Using birth control pills especially longer than 5 years
- Having HIV (Human immunodeficiency virus)
- Getting pregnant before the age of 17
- Having three full-term pregnancies
- Consuming a low diet in fruits and vegetables
- A family history of cervical cancer
- Socio-economic status
- Other sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea, syphilis, and chlamydia
Symptoms of cervical cancer
In the early stages, you may not feel the symptoms of cervical cancer. The symptoms of cervical cancer may appear in the late stages and they can be similar to other common conditions such as urinary tract infections and menstrual periods. The symptoms of cervical cancer include:
- Pain when you have sexual intercourse
- Unusual vaginal bleeding between sex and after periods and menopause
- Unusual vaginal discharge
- Pain in the pelvis
- Needing to urinate frequently
- Pain during urination
Once cervical cancer has spread to other parts of the body, it can also cause
- Weight loss
- Bone pain
- Swollen legs
- Trouble peeing
- Kidney failure
- Lack of appetite
Symptoms of cervical cancer appear in later stages so, in order to detect and treat it in early stages, women should have regular cervical smear tests or Pap tests. A Pap test can be precautionary and reveal the changes in the cervical cells that may indicate the possible development of cancer.
Treatment of cervical cancer
Cervical cancer can be curable if it is detected early with the help of regular screening. There are four treatments of cervical cancer including surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and targeted therapy. Your treatment may vary due to several factors such as stage of cancer, age, and overall state of general health.
Sometimes, combinations of treatments are also done to make them more effective. Treatment is most likely to succeed if it is detected when cancer remains within the cervix and it is less likely to succeed once it has spread from the cervix to other parts of the body.
The bottom line
One of the best ways to prevent cervical cancer is to have regular Pap tests or after every 3 years once you are 21 or older. HPV infection can cause most cervical cancers so taking HPV vaccination can prevent you from cervical cancer especially when it is given before the first sexual intercourse.
Other ways you can adapt to reduce the risk of cervical cancer are to limit the number of sexual partners, always use a condom and have safe sex, quit smoking, take HIV tests if you are sexually active, improve general health, and delaying the first sexual intercourse. We hope you find this article useful for yourself.
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