Cancer, a group of diseases involving unchecked growth and spread of abnormal cells, are of over 100 different types, each with its own unique set of characteristics and behaviours. Cervical cancer is a cancer affecting the cervix – the lower part of the uterus connecting to the vagina. The most common sign of cervical cancer is abnormal bleeding from the vagina, such as bleeding between periods, after sexual intercourse, or after menopause. Other signs and symptoms may include pelvic pain, pain during sexual intercourse, and abnormal vaginal discharge.
The main cause of cervical cancer is infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV), a very common sexually transmitted infection that is spread through sexual contact. There are more than 100 types of HPV and not all of them cause cancer. However, certain high-risk types of HPV such as HPV 16 and HPV 18 are responsible for the majority of cervical cancer cases. Other risk factors for cervical cancer include smoking, having multiple sexual partners, having a weakened immune system, and using oral contraceptives for a long period of time. It can be diagnosed through a Pap test and treated with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy depending on the stage in which it is diagnosed.
Cervical cancer is a common cancer that can be effectively treated if caught early. However, there are many myths and misconceptions about cervical cancer that can lead to misunderstandings and misinformation.
Myth 1: Cervical cancer is rare
Fact: Cervical cancer is quite common, particularly in developing countries. It is the fourth most common cancer in women worldwide. In India it has second position, after breast cancer which is the commonest.
Myth 2: Cervical cancer only affects older women
Fact: While cervical cancer is more common in women over the age of 40, it can affect women of any age. In fact, the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is a major risk factor for cervical cancer, is often transmitted through sexual activity and can affect women in their reproductive years. However we may see precancerous changes in younger asymptotic patients where it can be diagnosed by subjecting them to regular screening by pap smear test even if they are vaccinated.
Myth 3: A pap smear can detect all cases of cervical cancer
Fact: A pap smear, also known as a pap test is a screening test that can detect abnormal cells on the cervix. If abnormal cells are detected, a follow-up test called a colposcopy may be recommended with or without biopsy for diagnosis of cervical cancer.
Myth 4: Cervical cancer is always deadly
Fact: Cervical cancer is a serious and potentially life-threatening illness, but it is also one of the most treatable types of cancer if caught early. The five-year survival rate for women with cervical cancer is over 80-90% when the cancer is caught in the early stages. However, if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, the survival rate drops significantly. It is recommended to have regular follow-ups after the treatment is complete.
Myth 5: There is no way to prevent cervical cancer
Fact: While there is no guaranteed way to prevent all cases of cervical cancer, there are steps that can be taken to reduce the risk. One of the most effective ways to reduce the risk of cervical cancer is to get vaccinated against HPV. The HPV vaccine is recommended girls between 9-14 years of age, and it can help protect against the strains of HPV that are most commonly associated with cervical cancer. In addition to vaccination, practising safe sex and getting regular screening can also help reduce the risk of cervical cancer.
Myth 6: There are no symptoms of cervical cancer
Fact: In the precancerous stages of cervical cancer, there may not be any noticeable symptoms. Therefore it is so important to get regular screening, as they can detect abnormal cells before they have a chance to turn into cancer. However, as the cancer progresses, there may be some symptoms that may develop. These can include abnormal vaginal bleeding, pain during sex, and abnormal discharge.
It is essential for women to get vaccinated, subject herself to regular screening-pap smear test even when there are no symptoms and to immediately see her Gynaecologist when one experiences abnormal vaginal bleeding.
Dr. Kalpana Kothari, Chief of Gynaec Oncology, Senior Consultant Robotic Surgery & HIPEC, HCG Cancer Centre Ahmedabad.