Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer among women in the world and the survival rate is just above 50%. In India, around 1,40,000 cases of cervical cancer are reported every year. Here are the causes, symptoms, treatments and most important of all, how to prevent yourself from being diagnosed with cervical cancer.
What causes Cervical cancer?
It is caused by a virus called human papillomavirus (HPV). This virus infection can cause abnormal growth of cervical cells and these cells can spread to other parts of the body. This is also known as cervical dysplasia. But not all types of HPV viruses will cause cervical cancer.
Smoking - both active and passive, birth control pills or oral contraceptives, multiple pregnancies, sexual contact with a person already infected with HPV and having many sexual partners are a few risk factors than can result in cervical cancer.
In early stages, no symptoms are seen but will gradually show up as cancer progresses. It usually develops from the precancerous stage over a period of 10 to 20 years.
It is diagnosed by a cervical screening such as a pap smear followed by a biopsy of the cervix. The next stage is to do a medical imaging to determine the extent to which cancer has spread. Tests like palpation, inspection, colposcopy, hysteroscopy, cystoscopy and X-ray imaging are used to find out the stage of cancer.
Symptoms and signs of Cervical cancer
- Vaginal bleeding.
- Abnormal vaginal discharge.
- Bleeding after sexual intercourse.
- In rare cases, vaginal mass.
During advanced stages the following symptoms are also noticed :
- Loss of appetite.
- Weight loss.
- Pelvic, back and leg pain.
- Swollen legs.
- Bone fractures.
- Leakage of urine or feces from the vagina.
Treatment for cervical cancer
Depending on the stage of cervical cancer, treatment is varied. But a few common treatments are :
Hysterectomy which is a surgical procedure of removing pelvic lymph nodes which may or may not involve the removal of the ovaries and fallopian tubes. This is usually done for micro-invasive cancer in stage 1A. Undergoing a hysterectomy will mean that the person can’t have any children but this is usually kept as the last option only when the cancer is progressing rapidly.
Large early stage tumours are treated by chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
A person is said to be completely cured only when there are no remains of the cancer cells on the removed tissue on observation under a microscope.
Cancer, as you may already know, is very difficult to get rid of completely unless it is identified in the early stages. But prevention is always better than cure.
The best way to prevent cervical cancer is to have regular Pap smear tests. This will identify any abnormal cell changes before they turn into cancer. Always make sure to follow it up with a doctor and take their view on your test result.
HPV Vaccine, Gardasil, is known to reduce the chances of getting cervical cancer by a whopping 93%. They are usually given to women between the age of 9 and 26 years and it is effective only before the infection occurs. The length of effectiveness of this vaccine is unknown. It costs around 3000 to 4000 rupees and there are a few states in India that are looking into subsidizing this vaccine. Talk to your doctor about this vaccine and find out if you’re eligible for it.
Always make sure to practice safe sex by using condoms because they may provide protection against genital warts, Chlamydia and HIV which are precursors for cervical cancer.