It’s a New Year again so let me start by wishing everyone a Happy and Healthy 2017. January is Cervical Cancer Awareness month and it’s only right to raise awareness about the disease; what it is, what causes it and how it can be prevented.
In Nigeria, cervical cancer is the second most common cancer-affecting women, second only to breast cancer. It is a disease in which cancerous cells form in the tissues of the cervix. To describe it in the simplest form, the cervix is part of the female reproductive system and is located between the vagina and the body of the uterus (womb).
Cervical cancer usually develops slowly over time. Before you can have cervical cancer, the normal cells of the cervix would usually go through stages where the normal cells slowly start changing to become abnormal. This is known as cervical dysplasia. Most times these abnormal cells would progress into cancerous cells to become cervical cancer. There are usually no signs or symptoms associated with cervical dysplasia or early cervical cancer. However, in its progressive stages of cervical cancer, the most common symptoms are pelvic pain and abnormal vaginal bleeding.
Cervical cancer is the easiest gynecological cancer to prevent. Most times a cancer diagnosis can be linked to family history and sadly, we can’t control that. However, some cancers such as cervical cancer are largely due to lifestyle choices and this, we can control. All women are at risk of developing cervical cancer but there is hope knowing that it can be prevented. Unfortunately, people largely underutilize preventive screening. This may be due to ignorance, lack of awareness or laziness. Whatever the case may be, it should not be so and women should learn to start taking their health more seriously. There are no early signs and symptoms, it can be only be prevented with regular screening tests. The two screening tests that help prevent Cervical Cancer are The Pap Test and HPV Test.
Pap smear is a test that can be done very quickly at the clinic. The doctor would insert a speculum into the vagina in order to be able to visualize the cervix and then uses a swab to scrape the cervix in order to get cervix cells that would be further examined in the lab. This procedure is minimally uncomfortable and it takes only a few minutes. Pap smear test looks for changes in the cells of cervix that are most likely to turn to cancer if left untreated. Pap smears are recommended once you turn 21 years and it’s done periodically till 65 years of age.
The second screening test is the HPV test. The collected cells during the Pap test will be tested for Human Papilloma Virus in the lab. This test is recommended for women over 30 years old. Both tests are recommended once in 3 years as long as your test results are normal.
All women are at risk of getting cervical cancer but certain factors may increase a woman’s risk.
The most important risk factor for cervical cancer is Human Papilloma Virus infection. HPV infection is usually spread through sexual activity with someone who has HPV infection. Women who are not sexually active have little or no chance of getting HPV and hence have little chance of getting cervical cancer. Likewise, being sexually active at a young age, usually less than 13 years, or having many sexually partners usually more than six sexual partners would increase your chances of cervical cancer because the risk of HPV infection is increased.
Secondly, women with lowered immune system have a higher chance of developing cervical cancer. These may include women that are infected with HIV, have a prolonged illness or prolonged use of corticosteroids. These people would have immune system deficiency and would be unable to prevent abnormal cells from turning into cancer cells. Smoking, including second hand exposure to cigarette smoking triples a woman’s chances of developing cervical cancer. It is advisable to quit smoking because it does a lot of harm to the body system as a whole.
Also, it is important to note that cervical cancer is more common among black women.
Other contributing factors for developing this cancer include being overweight or obese and lack of exercise. Therefore, proper balanced nutrition and frequent exercise is encouraged for optimal health and to reduce the chances of developing cervical cancer.
In addition, vaccines are available to protect against HPV infection and to help reduce risk of cervical cancer. These vaccines would not help those who have already been infected with HPV. It is best to administer the vaccine to young girls as from the age of 12 before sexual activity begins and before the exposure to HPV. HPV vaccination does not exempt women from routine Pap tests as the vaccine does not protect against all types of HPV that cause cervical cancer.
Living with cancer is no joke! We are lucky enough that it takes about 10 years for cervical cancer to develop in the human body. With proper screening, we are able to detect it earlier on and stop it. Still, every year, there are half a million new cases of cervical cancer in Nigeria alone.
In Nigeria, women die everyday from cervical cancer. In fact, according to a recent data published by ICO information centre on HPV, it shows that in Nigeria about 9,000 women die yearly from cervical cancer. This is totally unacceptable, especially because routine screening that is easily done, and is relatively inexpensive can easily prevent cervical cancer. You can help spread awareness about cervical cancer by talking to your mother, sister, wife, friends and encourage them to get screened immediately.
Disclaimer: The medical information provided on here by Dr. Nini Iyizoba is provided as an information resource only. This information does not create any patient-physician relationship and should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis and treatment.