Cervical cancer is the cancer of the cervix, which is the lower narrow end of the uterus that connects the uterus to the vagina. It affects about 500,000 new women each year and causes more than 270,000 deaths worldwide. It is the fourth most frequent cancer in women.
About 90% of cervical cancer-related deaths occur in the developing countries of the world. Although the survival rate of cervical cancer is good in developed countries, the high mortality rates globally are a matter of concern.
It is important to note that if the right screening and prevention interventions were available to all women, almost all deaths due to cervical cancer could be avoided.
Cervical cancer is a slow starter
Cervical cancer usually develops slowly over time. Before the cells of the cervix become cancerous, they go through changes from normal to abnormal cervical tissue. This stage of abnormal cervical tissue is known as dysplasia. Dysplasia can either develop into the precancerous stage, stay the same or get back to normal with time. The precancerous tissue can develop into cervical cancer if left untreated.
If diagnosed early, cervical cancer is easily treatable. Efforts to reduce cervical cancer deaths globally include a comprehensive approach that includes prevention, early diagnosis, effective screening, and treatment.
Cervical cancer is mostly a result of HPV infection
Cervical cancer is almost always caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. There are several types of HPV and some of them can infect the cervix through sexual contact. Usually, the immune system of an individual can fight the HPV infection before it develops into cancer. But in some cases, the HPV infection needs treatment and if left untreated can cause abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix leading to the formation of cancer.
Cervical cancer is preventable
The occurrence of cancer is dependent on the risk factors and protective factors of an individual. The things that increase the chances that a woman will develop cervical cancer count as the risk factors while the factors that decrease her chances of getting cervical cancer are the protective factors.
Avoiding the risk factors and increasing the protective factors is the key in cervical cancer prevention. Cervical cancer prevention can help lower the number of new cases of cancer. This can also lead to a reduction in cervical cancer mortality.
Scientists have been studying different ways of cervical cancer prevention that may involve different kinds of interventions throughout the life of a woman. They use Cervical cancer prevention clinical trials to find ways that can help lower the risk of cervical cancer.
In addition to educating women and improving their health literacy, there are mainly five important ways that can help prevent cervical cancer.
Five ways to prevent cervical cancer
1. Get screened with a Pap test and HPV test
Cervical cancer usually has no clear signs and symptoms. Therefore, screening for cervical cancer is the most important tool for prevention. Cervical cancer screening looks for the presence of cancer before a woman has any symptoms.
A Pap test, also called Pap smear, is an important screening test for cervical cancer. It is a procedure to collect cells from the surface of the cervix and vagina. The cells are then viewed under a microscope to find any abnormalities. In addition to the Pap test, an HPV test may be done to screen for cervical cancer. This test checks for DNA or RNA for certain types of HPV infection.
Regular cervical cancer screening using a Pap test of women between the age of 21 and 65 years helps decrease the chance of women dying from cervical cancer. Women between 21 and 29 years of age should get a Pap test done every 3 years while women between 30 and 65 years of age should get a Pap test and HPV test done together every 5 years or a Pap test done every 3 years.
2. Get vaccinated to protect against HPV infection
The HPV vaccine can protect young women against certain HPV subtypes that are commonly associated with cervical cancer. Although these HPV vaccines prevent HPV infection, they cannot treat an already existing infection. Therefore, these vaccines are most effective if given before exposure to HPV through sexual activity begins in a person’s life.
The HPV vaccine requires a series of two or three injections depending on the age. Except for mild pain and redness at the site of injection, the vaccine usually has no adverse effects. It is a safe and effective way to prevent cervical cancer.
The vaccine is recommended for females 13-26 years of age and for males 13-21 years of age. The vaccination series may be started as early as age 9 and it may still be effective if taken long after beginning sexual contact as long as the person has not already been infected with HPV. The HPV vaccine is not recommended for pregnant women. It is important to note that screening for cervical cancer is still recommended even if you are vaccinated against HPV infection.
3. Use barrier protection during sexual activity
Using methods to prevent sexually transmitted diseases can decrease the chances of getting an HPV infection. Although they do not completely prevent infection, studies have shown that use of condoms or diaphragms during sexual activity lowers the risk of cervical cancer.
Studies have shown that women whose partners always used a condom during sexual activity were 70% less likely to become infected with HPV than the women whose partners used the condom less than 5% of the time.
4. Practice monogamy
Although having sexual activity with even one partner can put you at risk of HPV infection, staying monogamous or limiting the number of sexual partners may lower the chances of exposure to HPV. It is important to remember that a person with HPV may not have symptoms for many years and can pass it on to the partner without knowing it.
The women who are not sexually active have almost no risk of cervical cancer. On the contrary, women who become sexually active before the age of 18 and those who have had six or more sexual partners have a high risk of HPV infection and cervical cancer.
5. Quit smoking
Not smoking is another way to reduce the risk of cervical cancer. Smoking is known to weaken the immune system. Women infected with HPV have a higher risk of cervical cancer if they smoke cigarettes or are exposed to secondhand smoke. The number of cigarettes smoked per day and for how long the woman has smoked is directly correlated with the risk of cervical cancer.
Cigarette smoking is considered a contributing factor to the development of cervical cancer. Some studies have shown that women who had quit smoking for over two years had the same risk of cervical cancer as women who had never smoked. Researchers have suggested that women who have HPV should quit smoking to reduce their cancer risk.
Prevention is better than treatment
There are several clinical trials being conducted that are finding new ways to prevent cervical cancer. In addition to the well-known steps of cancer prevention such as eating a healthy diet, regular exercising, or taking certain dietary supplements, the five ways mentioned above are the most important for cervical cancer prevention.
In conclusion, cervical cancer prevention is an important health issue for women. Invasive cervical cancer is common worldwide and is associated with high morbidity and mortality. Early diagnosis is crucial to reducing the number of cervical cancer deaths. Following these five proven ways of cervical cancer prevention may help you stay cancer-free.
Written by Preeti Paul, MS Biochemistry
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