What is cervical cancer?
The cervix is a narrow part of the female reproductive tract situated between the vagina and the uterus (or womb). It has a narrow opening that leads to the uterus and acts as the gateway between the vagina and the uterus. Cervical cancer occurs when cells of this area grow haphazard and refuse to die, thus forming a clump of cells (called a tumour) and may infect or spread to other parts of the body, often causing symptoms at this point.
Cervical cancer is caused by a family of viruses containing around 150 members. These viruses known as the human papillomavirus are also responsible for causing genital warts, head and neck cancers and anal cancers. They are mostly sexually transmitted (oral, anal and vaginal sex) and it is assumed that every sexually active person will come into contact with the virus at some point. The virus may also be spread through non-penetrative sexual contact or touching and sharing of sexual objects or toys. When the body comes into contact with the virus, our defences are typically skilled enough to repel the attack and protect us from an HPV infection. However, some people are unable to get rid of the virus and end up having cellular changes that lead to cancer several years later.
People at a higher risk of developing cervical cancer
Although nearly every sexually active woman is at the risk of developing cervical cancer, most contacts with the virus do not end up with the development of the disease. Research has identified features (called risk factors) that leaves one at a higher risk of developing cervical cancer. The following are the commonest risk factors fingered in the development of cervical cancer:
- Poor women: This is a direct correlate of their lack of access to screening, vaccination and treatment services
- Having a family history of cervical cancer: A family history of cervical cancer in a first-degree relative leaves one at a higher risk of developing cervical cancer.
- Women with multiple sexual partners or a male partner who has multiple sexual partners: An increase in the number of sexual partners increases the possibility of infection with the human papillomavirus. Even non-sexual skin to skin contact may spread the virus.
- Women who have had several pregnancies (more than four pregnancies carried to term): A higher risk of developing cervical cancer has been noted in women with multiple pregnancies carried to term.
- Women who have HIV: Human Immunodeficient Virus reduces the immune response to bugs of all sorts, including the human papillomavirus.
- Older women (aged 60 and above): As we grow old, our immune system has a reduced capability of dealing with bugs.
- Women who have other sexually transmitted infections, like chlamydia, herpes or gonorrhoea: There is an increased risk of getting infected with the human papillomavirus when one is infected with other sexually transmitted infections.
- Women who are overweight: obesity is a factor in the development of many diseases including cancers.
- Women who smoke: Smoking has been linked to an increased risk of developing cancers of all types.
Cervical cancer screening (Pap smear) has been shown to effectively reduce cervical cancer through early detection and commencement of treatment. It finds abnormal cells in and around the cervix and ensures that they are treated before they change into cancer cells. Starting at 21 years, every woman should be screened every two to three years. If your Pap test results are normal, you will not need another Pap test for three years. The HPV test can be used to screen for cervical cancer along with the Pap test in women aged 30 years and older. It also is used to provide more information when women aged 21 years and older have unclear Pap test results. If you are age 30 or older, you may choose to have an HPV test along with the Pap test. If the results are normal, your chance of getting cervical cancer in the next few years is very low.
The vaccine helps protect against HPV - the virus that causes cervical cancer. It is given by an injection into the upper arm, thighs or buttocks. It is taken in 3 doses from start, one or two months after the first dose (depends on the vaccine type) and six months after the first dose in people older than 15 years of age and 2 doses (start and 6 months later) for people below 15 years of age. Young boys and girls between the ages of 9-13, before they become sexually active are the desired target for the vaccine. However, a woman of any age can be vaccinated.
The risk of developing cervical cancer increases in women who are HIV positive. Getting tested frequently is the only way to know one’s status. If positive, commence treatment as soon as possible.
Having multiple partners increases the possibility of developing cervical cancer. With persistent infection, the likelihood of the body clearing it reduces. Avoiding sex with men who have multiple sex partners is equally important. This also helps to ensure a reduction in the possibility of developing other sexually transmitted infections.
Smoking is a major factor in the development of cervical cancer as well as other cancers like Lung, bladder, skin, throat and rectal cancers.
Like smoking, obesity is a factor in the development of many diseases including cancers.
Unprotected sex leaves you at risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases that can increase your risk of getting HPV and greatly increase your chances of developing precancerous changes of the cervix. Condoms are very effective in preventing the spread of the virus. They are however unable to offer complete protection because the spread may occur following contact with other areas.
The odds of being infected with the human papillomavirus increases when one is infected with other sexually transmitted infections like chlamydia, herpes or gonorrhoea.