What to know about cervical cancer: Risks, treatment and prevention

By Lydia Winda

The COVID-19 virus has shaken the whole world and shifted the focus of everybody, putting the world in a position where people can easily turn a blind eye to other equally fatal diseases like cancers, communicable diseases, HIV & AIDS among others. January is world cervical cancer awareness month and as such, it is important to note that cervical cancer is still here with us.

Cervical cancer is a type of reproductive health cancer that occurs in the cells of the cervix — the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. It is the fourth most common cancer in women ranking after breast cancer (2.1 million cases), colorectal cancer (0.8 million) and lung cancer (0.7 million). In 2018 alone, approximately 570 000 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer worldwide and about 311 000 women died from the disease which is quite on the higher side. Moreover, cervical cancer was the leading cause of cancer-related death in women in Eastern, Western, middle, and Southern Africa. Specialists state that 75% of cervical cancers are preventable through cervical cancer screening that leads to early diagnosis. Further, 9 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer every day, 2 women lose their lives to the disease every day and most cases of cervical cancer are at ages under 50 years old (The Lancet Global Health). Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) which is a Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI).

  • Causes and Risk factors of Cervical Cancer

    • Early sexual activity. Having sex at an early age increases your risk of HPV.
    • A weakened immune system. You are more likely to develop cervical cancer if your immune system is weak and you have HPV.
    • Multiple sexual partners. The greater your number of sexual partners — and/or the greater your partner's number of sexual partners — the greater your chances of contracting HPV.
    • If a family member has had cervical cancer (if cervical cancer runs in the family)
    • Smoking. Smoking is associated with squamous (a layer of epithelium that consists of very thin flattened cells) cell cervical cancer.
    • Having other STIs — such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis and HIV/AIDS — increases your risk of HPV.

    Early onset symptoms

    In the early stages, one might not experience any symptoms at all hence the need for women to go for annual pap smear and pelvic tests. Note that pap smear is a preventive test that indicates any change in the cells of the cervix. These are the initial symptoms that can be identified in a woman who has cervical cancer.

    • Abnormal vaginal bleeding (between periods, after sex, after menopause). The periods may be longer and heavier than usual.
    • Vaginal discharge that has odor.
    • Pelvic pain.
    • Pain during intercourse.

    Late stage symptoms

    These symptoms are likely to appear if cervical cancer spreads to the neighboring tissues;

    • Urinary problems; blood in urine, pain or difficulty when urinating
    • Mild backache or swelling
    • Loss of weight, appetite and fatigue
    • Gastrointestinal involvement; nausea, vomiting, constipation and a swollen abdomen
    • Difficulty defecating or diarrhea with blood stains. Sometimes bleeding continues after bowel movement.

    Note that like any other cancer, cervical cancer patients may experience general wear and tear and degradation. As the disease progresses, one further loses more weight and becomes easily fatigued. Cancerous, pathologies are known as ’consumer diseases‘. This means that they use many elements of your body to continue growing and damaging. Note that one does not necessarily experience all the symptoms listed above.

    Prevention and treatment of cervical cancer

    • Primary Prevention; Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccine prevents most cervical cancer cases. Adolescent and young girls are encouraged to get the vaccine to reduce their chances of contracting cervical cancer.
    • Practice safer sex. Reduce your risk of cervical cancer by taking measures to prevent STIs, such as using a condom correctly and consistently every time you have sex and limiting the number of sexual partners you have.
    • Avoid smoking. If you don't smoke, don't start. If you do smoke, talk to your doctor about strategies to help you quit.
    • Engage in a lifestyle that enhances your immunity system
    • Secondary prevention; screening for, and treating precancerous lesions prevents most cervical cancer cases.
    • A full range of treatment options. The range of treatments offered to those with cervical cancer includes radiation therapy, brachytherapy, chemotherapy, targeted drug therapy, immunotherapy and many types of surgical procedures, such as simple hysterectomy, radical hysterectomy, robotic hysterectomy, and fertility-sparing procedures.

    Cervical cancer if diagnosed early is one of the many cancers that has the most successful recovery stories compared to other types of cancers as long as there is early detection and it is managed effectively. Cancers diagnosed in late stages can also be controlled with the right treatment and palliative care. Act now, do not wait until it is too late.

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