Every year 527,624 women worldwide are diagnosed with cervical cancer
Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer among South African women after breast cancer. According to the Cancer Association of South Africa, one in every 42 women in the country will be diagnosed with cervical cancer.
However, despite its prevalence, cervical cancer is in many instances only diagnosed at an advanced stage due to the fact that there are no early recognisable symptoms, making it difficult to treat at a late stage. Yet, cervical cancer is a disease that is both preventable and treatable when detected early on.
With this in mind Gynaecologist Dr Paul Blaauwhof who practices at Netcare Rosebank Hospital and also at Netcare Garden City Hospital, urges South African women to encourage public dialogue around this life-threatening disease in an attempt to spread awareness about the importance of regular screenings to ensure early detection.
“The fact that cervical cancer is associated with the sexually transmitted human papilloma virus (HPV), means that it remains a taboo topic in many circles with many women going about their daily lives and downplaying their own personal risk of developing the disease.
“The majority of sexually active women will be exposed to the cancer-causing human papilloma virus, and considering that up to 80 percent of sexually active women will acquire an HPV infection in their lifetime, the importance of timeous HPV vaccinations and annual Pap smears cannot be over emphasised,” he says.
When it comes to the link between HPV and cervical cancer, Dr Blaauwhof explains that the more a woman comes into contact with the virus, the greater her chances are of developing cervical cancer.
“Frequent HPV infections lead to scarring of the cervix, causing your cervical cells to multiply in order to heal themselves. However, abnormal cells can multiply out of control as a result of infection and can cause pre-cancerous lesions which ultimately leads to cervical cancer,” he says.
Young women in their teens or early 20’s carry the highest rates of HPV infection. Generally speaking, girls nowadays are exposed to the virus at a younger age, and Dr Blaauwhof says for this reason it is even more important for them to be vaccinated against HPV timeously.
“Although vaccinations against HPV became part of the national vaccination programme in 2014, uptake to date has been relatively slow despite the fact that it is such a highly effective preventative measure for cervical cancer.
“It is always best to be vaccinated before becoming sexually active and girls as young as nine can receive the vaccination. It is, however, never too late to get the injection, even though you may already have come into contact with some of the HPV strains.
“Ultimately, taking measures to protect yourself against contracting an HPV infection, drastically minimises your chances of developing cervical cancer,” Dr Blaauwhof concludes.
Three facts every woman should know about cervical cancer
- There are warning signs and symptoms but not in the early stages of the disease. Women should look out for abnormal bleeding, unusual vaginal discharge, abnormal menstrual cycles, pain or bleeding after sex, and back pain.
- Only certain strains of HPV cause cervical cancer. Approximately 100 types of HPV have been identified to date and, of these, nearly 15 virus types are considered to cause cervical cancer. The highest risk HPV types, namely 16 and 18, are responsible for over 70 percent of cervical cancers globally.
- Smoking and certain other factors increase your risk of developing cervical cancer.
Smokers are about twice as likely as non-smokers to get cervical cancer. Because smoking weakens your immune system, it makes it more difficult for your body to fight HPV infection. Women with a sister or mother who had cervical cancer are two to three times more likely to develop the disease. Discuss with your doctor if you have a family history of cervical cancer. It is also important to disclose your HIV status as this too increases your risk of developing cervical cancer should you be HIV positive.
When to vaccinate
To prevent infections with cancer-causing HPV types, vaccination before the first sexual activity is recommended, together with regular cervical cancer screening. However, nearly all women could benefit from vaccination for the following reasons:
- A woman can be infected with the virus at any point in her life.
- Even if a woman has already been exposed to HPV, prior infection does not reliably protect women against subsequent infections.
- Data show that as women age, cancer-causing HPV infection is more likely to become persistent, and can potentially lead to the development of pre-cancerous lesions and ultimately to cervical cancer.