Cervical cancer is the 2nd most common cancer worldwide in women under 45 and the 3rd leading cause of cancer deaths amongst women worldwide after breast and lung cancer. Every woman is at risk, whatever her age and her family history, as this is not hereditary. It is, however, a cancer that can be detected and prevented. It can also be treated with great success. Cervical cancer develops in the cervix - the low, narrow neck of the uterus that opens into the vagina.
The main cause of cervical cancer is a virus. Every woman is at risk of catching the virus and up to 80%of women will be infected with a type of the virus at some time in their lives. Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is responsible for 99.7% of cervical cancers worldwide. There are more than 100 types of this virus with types 16, 18, 45and 31 causing about 80% of the cancer cases. The virus can be transmitted during sex or even sometimes during intimate genital skin-to-skin contact. This is why it is so important to have regular smear tests to detect abnormalities.
Most of the time the viral infection that causes cervical cancer clears up spontaneously. In some cases the virus does not clear by itself and may develop into cervical cancer. When this happens there are normally no symptoms in the early stages. Infected cells may slowly develop into pre-cancerous lesions and in some cases cancer, often taking years, unless they are identified early and treated.
In South Africa the lifetime risk of developing cervical cancer is 1 in 34 for a black African women compared to 1 in 93 for white women reflecting the better socio-economic status and more frequent screening practices of white women. 66% of women with cervical cancer had stage 3 or 4 disease at presentation. Cervical cancer is a disease that should be diagnosed at an early stage because of cervical cytological screening. In developing countries most patients only present in advanced stages when the symptoms of vaginal bleeding or an offensive discharge become a problem. Sexual factors like early sexual debut, early pregnancy, multiple partners (or a partner who has multiple partners) and a history of sexually transmitted diseases are known to increase the risk of developing cervical cancer.
Regular Pap smear testing is the most effective way to detecting cervical cell abnormalities which allows for quick, easy and often successful treatment. It does not prevent the infection with the virus. During a Pap smear test the doctor, gynaecologist or nurse will gently swab the cervix and take a few cells from the surface for testing. These are examined under a microscope for early abnormalities. The test should not cause you any pain and is very simple and quick to do. Pap smears have proven to be vital in detecting changes due to both recent and long term infections. Women with suspicious lesions usually go for a colposcopy biopsy.
Please contact your medical practitioner regarding the frequency of Pap tests, there are different screening intervals. Most medical aids pay for annual Pap tests.
Lastly, vaccination may soon become a method of primary prevention but, in developing countries, this may not be cost-effective. Kindly contact me via e-mail or your doctor regarding pap tests and vaccines and all questions regarding cervical cancer.
Every woman should know the facts about cervical cancer.
- Every two minutes a woman dies of cervical cancer worldwide.
- You may be at risk whatever your age, the virus is sexually transmitted and condoms don’t always offer full protection.
- Infection rarely show symptoms. Pap smear tests are the most effective way of detecting cervical abnormalities the early signs of cancer.
- Vaccines and regular screening will offer an even greater level of protection in the near future.
Kindly contact me via e-mail or your doctor regarding pap tests and vaccines and all questions regarding cervical cancer.