Have you heard about cervical cancer? I bet you have. Perhaps a personal experience, or that of a family member. Perhaps you have read about the story of Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cells that have been immortalized in medical research. Perhaps you’ve read about it on the internet.
However the case, this is a highly preventable cancer that everyone should know about. Like other cancers, it can be diagnosed at an early stage or late stage. As a Medical Oncologist, I always feel profoundly sad to encounter a case of late stage cervical cancer. Every such case is sad because it represents a failure of primary and secondary prevention.
Here are 4 things to know about cervical cancer in 2017:
We know the most important causes. The biggest risk factor is infection by a virus called Human Papilloma Virus or HPV. This virus is acquired by most women in their sexual life but mostly cleared. In some cases, it may persist and can lead to genital warts and cervical cancer. There are also many types of the virus, some more likely to cause cancer than others. Other risk factors include smoking and HIV infection. There is a also an association with number of births and sexual partners.
Cervical cancer is highly preventable. When we talk about prevention of disease, we focus mostly on primary prevention and secondary prevention. Look here for definitions from the WHO. Recently, the HPV vaccine was introduced, to prevent HPV infection in young people. Cervarix and Gardasil are the two examples (cervarix is no longer being marketed in the US). Both are best given before the onset of sexual activity (11-12 years of age especially, but even as young as 9, and up to 26). Gardasil is also effective in boys. Look here if you want more details. If you live in an area where the vaccine is not available, you may have to rely on other ways to prevent HPV infection. Every one should pay attention to these other facts, even if they received the vaccine.
Secondary prevention is our greatest weapon against cervical cancer. This is because most of us are too old for the vaccine to help, and the vaccine cannot prevent all HPV infection. Also, even if HPV infection is prevented, the vaccine cannot prevent all cases of cervical cancer. Secondary prevention involves getting Pap smears from the age of 21. Your doctor will recommend how often you should have Pap smears, and whether you should also have an HPV test at the same time. It is also important to watch out symptoms like unusual vaginal bleeding and pelvic pain. These should be reported promptly.
If you do develop cervical cancer, you will need a team of cancer doctors. You may need some combination of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. Surgery alone is adequate in many cases of early stage cervical cancer. You may need doctors to treat pain, and may need other support, depending on the situation.
Do you have any thoughts to share about cervical cancer? Please do get in touch and feel free to leave comments below. If you found this helpful, please share freely with your friends and family. Hover over the bottom right and click on “Follow” to subscribe to my blog.