Understanding Cervical Cancer

Cancer is, unfortunately, a sophisticated disease. It manifests itself in various ways and not one case is exactly identical to another. Cancer is able to not only affect organs (e.g. lung cancer), but bodily fluids (leukemia; blood cancer) and body parts (e.g. breast cancer) too. If not detected early and treated accordingly, cancer can start in one area and spread to other parts.

What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is an illness where the cells in the cervix become cancerous. It is the 2nd most common cancer affecting women in South Africa. CANSA reports that 1 in 46 women are at risk of contracting cervical cancer in their life time. As scary as that may be, cervical cancer can be prevented and treated.

What causes cervical cancer?

HPV is the leading cause of cervical cancers.Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is a collection of related viruses. There are over200 of them and more than 40 types can be spread through direct skin-to-skin contact, sex, bodily fluids. Not all types of HPV lead to cervical cancer (some cause genital warts), but almost all cervical cancers are a result of HPV.

HPV infections which are sexually transmitted fall into two categories: Low-risk and High-risk

  • Low-risk: do not cause cancer but do cause skin warts (on/around genitals and anus)
  • High-risk: can cause cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers

Factors which put one at risk of contracting cervical cancer include; having multiple sexual partners, birth control pills, smoking and a weak immune system; to name a few.

Source: https://www.cansa.org.za/womens-health/

How is HPV contracted?

HPV can be easily transmitted from one person to the other through sexual intercourse (oral, anal and vaginal sex).The tricky part with this infection is that one can have it and show no symptoms of it. The usage of condoms can reduce the risk of contracting HPV but does not completely prevent transmission.

What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?

As a girl you need to know your body well, so that when something becomes irregular, you are able to detect it and seek help at an early stage. Cervical cancer progresses slowly and often shows no symptoms.  It is worth noting that not everyone will present the same symptoms, however, these are the most common ones:

  • Bleeding in-between periods (where one experiences bleeding after their menstrual cycle ends and before the next one begins)
  • Burning sensation when urinating
  • Irregular menstrual cycle (changes in flow and/or duration of cycle)
  • Pelvic pains
  • Changes in vaginal discharge (either in colour or consistency)

How to treat cervical cancer

As the old saying goes; “prevention is better than cure” and that is no different here. Early detection ensures that treatment can start immediately, which significantly reduces the severity of the cancer and how easy it can spread to other organs and body parts. A Papsmear is a procedure used to test whether a sample of cells contains the virus or not. A small brush/spatula is used to extract cells from the cervix. That small sample of cells is then used for testing. Other infections or abnormalities can be detected through this test. Pap smear can cause a bit of discomfort, which is why they are done only after a person has become sexually active.

Cervical cancer can be prevented by getting the HPV vaccinations. These vaccination shots are typically given between the ages of 9 to 25. The aim is for them to be given before one is sexually active so that the vaccine is effective. Both pap smears and HPV vaccinations can be done at government (clinics and hospitals) and private institutions (doctor’s private practice, health clinics at pharmacies).

Treatment options for cervical cancer include; surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. Pelvic surgical procedures are used to remove the cancerous cell. Radiotherapy uses high levels of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing and dividing. Chemotherapy is the usage of drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells or keep them from growing and dividing.

Understanding the above information will ensure that one is better equipped to deal with such health issues and be able to address them accordingly.

by Lebogang Mashasha


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