Cervical cancer is largely preventable, detectable, and treatable at early stages, yet it remains to be the second most common cancer- next to breast cancer- among women in the Philippines. According to the Department of Health, more than 7,000 new cases of and 3,000 deaths due to the disease are expected to occur every year.
In this article, Trinity has put together the important facts that you need to know about cervical cancer. By being more aware about cervical cancer, and the importance of early prevention and treatment, we can prevent additional cases and deaths due to this disease.
WHAT IS CERVICAL CANCER?
Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that forms in the tissues of the cervix – the organ that connects the lower part of the uterus to the vagina.
There are 2 main types of cervical cancer named for the type of cell where the cancer started. The most common type is the squamous cell carcinoma, which makes up about 80% to 90% of all cervical cancers. This type of cervical cancer starts in the cells on the outer surface covering of the cervix.
The less common type is Adenocarcinoma which starts in the glandular cells that line the lower birth canal in the internal portion of the cervix. It only makes up 10% to 20% of all cervical cancers.
Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection is the major risk factor for cervical cancer.
The major risk factor for cervical cancer is infection with human papillomavirus (HPV), a virus that can be passed from person to person during sexual activity. According to the World Health Organization, more than 95 % of cervical cancer cases worldwide are caused by HPV infection.
There are more than 200 types of HPV, but only certain types (known as the “high-risk types”) can cause changes in a woman’s cervix that can lead to cervical cancer.
Not all women infected with “high-risk types” of HPV will develop cervical cancer, but persistent infection with HPV increases the risk.
Because of the body’s natural ability to fight infection, most HPV infections go away on their own without causing major health problems. Most HPV-infected women only experience short-term infections that only cause mild or “low grade” changes in cervical cells. These changes in the cervical cells go back to normal as soon as the HPV infection clears.
However, in about 10% of HPV-infected women, the body is unable to get rid of the infection causing it to persist. Persistent infection with the “high-risk types” can cause more severe, or “high-grade,” changes in cervical cells. High-grade changes that persist for 1 or 2 years are more likely to become cancer if they are not treated.
Certain factors increase the chance that HPV infection will persist. These factors include cigarette smoking, a weak immune system, and infection with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
PREVENTION AND TREATMENT OF CERVICAL CANCER
Cervical cancer usually has no signs and symptoms during its early stages.
During its early stages, cervical cancer does not usually have symptoms. However, during its advance stage, some of the most common signs and symptoms that may occur include:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding (in between periods, after sex, or after menopause)
- Unpleasant vaginal discharge (with strong odor)
- Pain during sexual intercourse
- Pelvic pain
Being aware of these signs and symptoms and checking with your doctor immediately can help avoid further delays in diagnosis.
Regular screening prevents cervical cancer and saves lives.
Cervical cancer screening tests may be able to detect precancerous cell changes before they can turn into invasive cancer.
The main screening tests for cervical cancer include Pap test (also known as Pap smear) and human papillomavirus (HPV) test.
With a pap-test, cells are taken from the cervix and examined for any irregularity or abnormality. According to the Department of Health, the first Pap smear of a woman should be done 3 years after first sexual intercourse. After which, it should be done once a year for the next 3 years. If the Pap smear test is negative for the 3 consecutive years, then it can be done every two or three years thereafter. In women who never had sexual activity in their life, Pap smear should be done at age 35.
With HPV test, cervical cells are tested for infection with any of the “high-risk types” of HPV that are most likely to lead to cervical cancer.
You may get either of the tests or both depending on your age. Ask your doctor about the best method of screening that you should get.
Cervical cancer is treatable and curable.
Cervical cancer is generally viewed as treatable and curable, particularly if it is diagnosed during its early stage.
The treatments for cervical cancer include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy. Depending on the type and stage of your cancer, a person diagnosed with cervical cancer may need more than one type of treatment.
The American Cancer Society recommends that either surgery or radiation combined with chemotherapy be used for the earliest stages of cervical cancer. For later stages, radiation combined with chemotherapy is usually the main treatment.
Avoiding risky sexual behaviors may also help prevent cervical cancer.
Since the major cause of cervical cancer is infection with human papilloma virus (HPV), avoiding risky sexual behaviors to limit exposure to HPV may help indirectly prevent cervical cancer.
Do away from risky sexual behaviors by practicing safe sex by using condoms, observing a one-partner sexual relationship, and avoiding sexual intercourse with people who have had many partners.
The HPV vaccine protects against the types of HPV that most often cause cervical cancer.
HPV vaccine may protect against the diseases caused by HPV (including cervical cancer) when given in the recommended age groups.
The Center for Disease Prevention (CDC) recommends the following:
- HPV vaccination of children between the ages of 9 and 12.
- Children and young adults aged 13 through 26 who have not been vaccinated, or who haven’t gotten all their doses, should get the vaccine as soon as possible. Vaccination of young adults will not prevent as many cancers as vaccination of children and teens.
- HPV vaccination is not recommended for women older than 26 years.
The HPV vaccine works best if administered prior to exposure to HPV. Thus, only some women in acceptable age groups are eligible for HPV vaccine, when most have not yet engaged in any sexual activity.
Women aged 27-45 that are not yet vaccinated may decide to get HPV vaccinations under the guidance of the doctor. However, vaccine effectiveness is no longer guaranteed, because more women at this age-range had already been exposed to HPV.