Cervical cancer: What you need to know
Vaccination and screening a valuable intervention for sexually active women
Cervical cancer is the second leading cause of death in women in South Africa and the third leading cause of death in women throughout the world. It affects women of all ages and races equally.
There is, however, some upsides: a vaccine is available to prevent cancer-causing HPV infection; and cervical cancer is one of the few cancers that can be detected in the pre-cancerous stage through regular pap smears and if treated timeously, can be prevented from becoming cancerous.
Dr Premilla Naidoo, a gynaecologist at Netcare Mulbarton Hospital, says that even though cervical cancer affects so many women, many are not aware of the disease. “Cervical cancer can be treated successfully, especially if it is diagnosed early. Sadly, every two minutes, a woman still dies of cervical cancer. Awareness is key in preventing more deaths,” Dr Naidoo adds.
“The cervix is more commonly known as the mouth of the womb or the uterus and is found inside the vagina,” explains Naidoo. “Cervical cancer screening remains a valuable intervention for all sexually active women. A pap smear is an effective way of detecting about 55% of abnormalities in the cervix while newer HPV testing is even more effective.”
Dr Naidoo recommends a pap smear every two years, provided that previous pap smears were normal.
The human papilloma virus (HPV) is found in over 90% of cervical cancer patients and is strongly linked to the disease. There are more than 150 subtypes of HPV. The low risk subtypes can cause genital warts while the high risks subtypes are associated with cervical cancer.
“Limiting your exposure to HPV will greatly reduce your chance of developing cervical cancer as the most effective means of tackling cervical cancer is through prevention. It is now possible to vaccinate against most common cancer-causing HPV strains. The introduction of this Nobel prize-winning vaccination has given girls and women all over the world the chance to keep this devastating disease at bay.”
“To prevent infections with cancer-causing HPV types, vaccination before a first sexual encounter is recommended together with regular cervical cancer screening. However, nearly all women could benefit from vaccination as up to 80 percent of women will acquire an HPV infection in their lifetime and almost 50 percent of these infections will be with a cancer-causing subtype,” notes Naidoo.
In order to detect and treat cervical cancer in the pre-cancerous stage it is important for women to know what signs and symptoms to look out for.
According to Dr Naidoo, women should not ignore it if they experience any of the symptoms below but should seek medical help immediately.
- Abnormal or continuous vaginal bleeding
- Bleeding after intercourse
- Abnormal and continuous vaginal discharge
- Continuous lower abdominal pain or
- Experiencing abnormal pain during intercourse
“It is important for women to know that if cervical cancer is detected early, it is curable with either surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy or a combination of treatments. It is not a hereditary cancer and is not contagious,” says Dr Naidoo.
September is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month and Dr Naidoo urges the public to help in raising awareness of this disease. “Make an effort to get tested, educate friends and family about cervical cancer and encourage young girls to get vaccinated,” concludes Dr Naidoo.