Cervical Cancer is the second most common cancer women suffer from, after breast cancer. While breast cancer awareness month is recognised worldwide, cervical cancer doesn’t receive nearly as much attention as it needs. Every October we see a new, massive effort to spread more awareness about breast cancer, and rightly so. What we need is an equally powerful effort to create awareness about cervical cancer, in order to make a difference in the lives of the many women it affects, and will, unfortunately, continue to affect in the future. To put into perspective, it afflicts around 5,600 women in Pakistan every year. January marks cervical cancer awareness month – consider this the beginning of your lesson.
What Is Cervical Cancer?
The cervix is a 3cm long tube in the lower part of the uterus. This connects the uterine cavity above to the vaginal canal below. Cervical cancer generally presents itself with pre-cancerous changes in the cervix, which if left untreated, can eventually lead to cancer. This is a process that usually takes 10 to 15 years on average. The tricky nature of this illness is that there are no particularly alarming signs or symptoms of early cervical cancer, or for the precancerous changes. The only way to detect it is to get regularly screened. Without regular screening, there would be no way to diagnose the existence of cervical cancer. Fortunately, it’s also the most preventable cancer — if detected early through screening. As with most illnesses, early diagnosis and treatment lead to a higher potential of being cured. Cervical cancer largely targets women in midlife, somewhere between 30 to 45 years of age. This doesn’t mean women older, or younger than are immune from the disease. It just means the 30 to 45-year-old age bracket is diagnosed with cervical cancer at a higher frequency. The illness is somewhat related to sexual activity in certain contexts, which is why gynaecologists in our country only begin to recommend screening after marriage. However, in the UK regular screening starts from 25 years, and in the US by the age of 21.
Signs And Symptoms
1. Excessive Vaginal Bleeding
Abnormal vaginal bleeding or spotting is a common sign of concern. Unusual bleeding in-between your normal cycle, or after intercourse, should be reason enough to go see your gynaecologist. Another cause of concern would be your period lasting for longer than normal or being much heavier inflow than usual.
2. Abnormal Vaginal Discharge
While some discharge is normal, if you notice a higher volume of discharge that is thicker than usual, there could be something larger at play worth having checked out.
3. Pain During Intercourse
This should never be the norm for any woman, to begin with. Intercourse is never meant to hurt. If you’re suddenly feeling recurring pain during intercourse out of the blue, and aren’t sure why, see your gynaecologist to discuss it.
4. Pelvic Pain
The cervix is located at the bottom of your pelvis, and it could be the reason for unexplained pelvic pain.
5. Blood In Urine
When cervical cancer spreads to the bladder, there will likely be blood in the urine. If you notice this, don’t ignore it! Book your next doctors appointment without delay.
How To Prevent
1. Pap Smear Every 3 Years
Your perception of health shouldn’t deter you from getting screened. That is to say, don’t let feeling healthy fool you into thinking you’re immune from needing a pap smear. Having symptoms related to cervical disease isn’t the only criteria for getting screened. According to your age and other guidelines, you should be getting regular pap smears. Pap smears are the screening method routinely used for early detection of precancerous changes in the cervix. According to the American Cancer Society, screening should start at 21 years of age and should be followed up with successive ones every 3 years. The Pap test takes 5 minutes. Here’s what they do: a soft brush or swab is inserted into the cervix through the vagina, and gently twirled around to get a tissue sample from the cervix. This sample is then sent to a pathology lab, where the results are interpreted. If the results are normal, then you’re off the hook until your next test, which should be in three years. On the other hand, if there are abnormalities or precancerous changes found in your test, then follow-ups are advised to closely monitor the situation.
Cervical cancer found in sexually active women is often associated with HPV, which is a sexually transmitted disease. Generally, gynaecologists do not recommend an HPV vaccination to women at appointments, given that there is not a culture of widespread unsafe sexual activity amongst women in our country. However, if you’re still interested in knowing about the vaccination, you can discuss with your doctor and take the appropriate steps. The vaccine can be given to girls as young as twelve years old.
3. Quit Smoking
While smoking is a harmful practice in general, women smokers develop an increased risk of getting cervical cancer by 2 to 5 times more, in comparison to nonsmokers.