January marks Cervical Cancer Awareness Month and is a time to raise awareness of the disease and inform women about its prevention and cure. According to the Human Papillomavirus and Related Diseases Report (2021) cervical cancer is the 4th most common cancer among women globally. This treatable disease affects over 600,000 women annually, and is responsible for almost 350,000 deaths every year.
In India, cervical cancer is the second most frequently occurring type of cancer among women, and primarily occurs in the 15 to 44-year age bracket. With a population of 480 million women over the age of 15 at risk of developing this disease, it is estimated that 120,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year, and that 77,000 die of the disease.
Given these stark figures, Cervical Cancer Awareness Month is a critical period for raising the profile of this disease and educating people on how to protect themselves against it, its symptoms, and the treatments currently available. Dr Pooja Kohli, Vice President, HempStreet shares a complete guide including the causes, detection and the treatment for Cervical Cancer with The Free Press Journal.
Causes of Cervical Cancer
The primary cause of cervical cancer is a persistent infection with certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV), an extremely common virus family that is transmitted from one individual to another through sexual contact. When healthy cells on the cervix are infected with HPV for a prolonged period of between 15 and 20 years, it leads to the development of a precancerous condition called dysplasia.
If this condition is left untreated and the infected tissue allowed to remain, it can spread deeper into the cervix and other organs and go from benign to cancerous. Once this happens, it is classified as cervical cancer.
Drivers of the Disease
Nearly every sexually active individual will become infected with HPV at some point in their lives. Although the majority of HPV infections are handled by the immune system, several risk factors can cause a person who has a high-risk HPV infection to eventually develop cervical cancer.
The most prominent of these is a weakened immune system. A lower immunity can impact an individual’s ability to combat the HPV infection; prolonged infection can heighten the risk of it developing into a more serious prognosis.
Another risk factor is becoming sexually active at an early age, since this increases the likelihood of being exposed to high-risk HPV. Having multiple sexual partners at a young age, especially before 18, can lead to a persistent HPV infection that ultimately turns into cervical cancer.
Women who are smokers also have a higher risk of developing cervical cancer, due to the damage caused to the body’s cells and the harm caused to its immune system, leaving it weakened and less able to fight off an HPV infection quickly. Thankfully, many of these risks can be mitigated through a few simple lifestyle tweaks. These include practising safe sex with trusted partners, using condoms to avoid STDs, and avoiding any tobacco use.
How to Detect Cervical Cancer
In the vast majority of cases, the early stages of cervical cancer produce no signs or symptoms. Unfortunately, patients with cervical cancer only realise they’re unwell once the cancer is advanced and has spread. The signs of late-stage cancer can include vaginal bleeding after intercourse and between periods, unusual discharges from the vagina, and persistent pelvic pain.
Vaccinations and Screenings – Keeping Yourself Safe
Cervical cancer can have a devastating impact on a woman’s life. However, there are a number of steps that can be taken to drastically reduce the likelihood of ever having to contend with this disease. Routine screenings with HPV tests and Pap tests are vital to finding abnormal cell growths and precancers and treating them before they develop any further.
However, the threat of cervical cancer can effectively be handled by being vaccinated against HPV. Generally recommended for preteens between the ages of 9 and 12, this vaccine can reduce the incidence of precancerous lesions and cancer. The vaccine is easily administered and offers significant long-term protection against the disease, while also providing protection against developing other cancers associated with the HPV virus, such as head and neck cancer.
With the proper course of action, cervical cancer has the potential to be the first cancer to be eliminated globally. As a highly preventable and treatable disease, a dedicated screening and vaccination campaign could one day achieve this result. By adopting a holistic approach that combines the efforts and energies of both the public and the private sectors, we may one day achieve this goal.
(To receive our E-paper on WhatsApp daily, please click here. To receive it on Telegram, please click here. We permit sharing of the paper's PDF on WhatsApp and other social media platforms.)