In the last few years, Cervical cancer has been an oft-heard word. While several women are still unaware of its causes and symptoms, this is the cancer that infects most women in India. According to a joint study on Cervical Cancer prepared by ASSOCHAM and National Institute of Cancer Prevention and Research (NICPR), India accounts for one-fourth of the global burden of Cervical Cancer.
So, what exactly is Cervical Cancer? It is a type of cancer that is caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is primarily a sexually transmitted infection that affects the reproductive tract. When HPV attacks the body, the immune system tries to typically fight it so that no harm is caused to the body. In certain cases, the virus survives for years and causes some cells present on the surface of the cervix to become cancer cells.
The uterine cervix, which is the lowest region of the uterus and connects the uterus to the vagina, is what gets infected. When the cells of the cervix grow in an abnormal manner and start to invade other tissues and organs of the body, it means that Cervical Cancer has begun to show its signs. When it turns invasive, it can spread to other parts of the body, including the lungs, liver, vagina, as well as the rectum.
While Cervical Cancer could be potentially dangerous, it can be controlled or prevented in time, since it slowly progresses through the pre-cancerous stages. This gives a person enough time for early detection and treatment. Generally, women with pre-cancerous symptoms are in their 20s and 30s, but on an average, the occurrence of Cervical Cancer is common in women who are in their 50s.
SIGNS & SYMPTOMS
In most cases, there are no signs or symptoms visible in the early stages, but in the advanced stage, some women may suffer from abnormal vaginal bleeding, discharge, or some pain. The best way to detect Cervical Cancer is to get a Pap Smear Test done, but this test isn’t always effective. In case you feel your body doesn’t feel too great (even after your screening tests), raise these concerns with your doctor.
Here are a few common symptoms (in case they occur):
Abnormal vaginal bleeding: This is the first symptom of Cervical Cancer and occurs between menstrual periods. There’s no such time observed – it can happen at any time during the cycle. The bleeding is generally light, and most women overlook it. If you observe any such symptom, consult your doctor immediately. In case you are in the menopausal stage and experience spotting or any form of bleeding, make sure to seek medical help.
Bleeding after intercourse: If you bleed after intercourse, even if it’s a little, it could be a warning sign. It could also be a symptom of an infection or some other underlying disease, but make sure you get yourself checked.
Excess menstrual bleeding: If your periods occur for longer durations or are heavier than usual, it could be a cause of concern. While the menstrual cycle varies from woman to woman, it is better to be a little cautious, if you observe certain unusual signs.
Pelvic pain: This is also a huge sign of Cervical Cancer. Generally, the pain is felt in the region below the navel; for some, it is not as painful, while for others it is a sharp, shooting pain. The pain could be constant or occur in intervals, and could increase post-intercourse.
Vaginal discharge: This is another possible sign of Cervical Cancer. The discharge is generally reddish-brown in colour and is accompanied by a foul odour in some cases. It does vary from case to case, though!
Apart from these symptoms, some women also experience severe back pain, swelling in the legs, pain while urinating, or urinary incontinence.
CAUSES & RISK FACTORS
There are a few common causes and risk factors of Cervical Cancer, with HPV being the strongest.
HPV: This is a sexually transmitted disease that is accompanied by genital warts. Apart from this, there are no other visible signs. This infection can cause microscopic changes that can transition into more advanced symptoms with time. It isn’t necessary that HPV will always lead to Cervical Cancer, but this makes you more susceptible to it. It is advised to get yourself checked regularly to control HPV in time.
Smoking: If you are a smoker, the chances of developing Cervical Cancer are much higher, especially if you have HPV. While smoking generally affects the lungs, it can also impact other organs, and can cause other types of diseases, including Cervical Cancer.
Immune deficiency: In most cases, your immune system acts as a shield to protect you from infections, and in fact, cancer too. Women who have a weak immune system, either due to HIV or any other illness, are more prone to developing Cervical Cancer.
Genetics: Some women may have a history of Cervical Cancer in their families, which puts them at a greater risk of developing the disease.
Besides, there are also certain lifestyle risk factors, including multiple sexual partners, practicing unprotected sex, or using oral contraceptives that contribute to the high occurrence of Cervical Cancer among women.
Prevention is better than cure, so it’s always best to get oneself screened for Cervical Cancer in time. The most common way to diagnose this type of cancer is through the Pap Smear Test. This involves scraping and brushing cells from your cervix, that are later checked for abnormalities. This test can detect abnormal cells in the cervix, and if they are cancerous or not.
Another test that is generally prescribed is the HPV DNA test. It involves testing cells that are collected from the cervix and checking for all types of HPV to detect Cervical Cancer. This is generally done in women who are age 30 or upwards.
In case Cervical Cancer is suspected, your doctor will advise a thorough examination of your cervix.
There are certain ways in which you can reduce the risk of developing Cervical Cancer:
Regular pap tests: Make sure you go for routine Pap Smear Tests to detect abnormal cells in the cervix at an early stage.
Limit sexual partners: Studies show women who have multiple sexual partners are at a higher risk of contracting Cervical Cancer. They are also increasing their risk of developing HPV.
Quit smoking: Smoking increases your risk of developing all types of cancers.
Practice safe sex: If you are sexually active, use a condom to prevent HPV, HIV, or any other Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD).
Cervical Cancer can be prevented and checked in time, even if you are diagnosed with it. Take necessary steps and be cautious; after all, it’s always better to be safe than sorry!