In India, cervical cancer is the primary cause of cancer deaths amongst women. Approximately 1.32-lakh cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed and around 74,000 deaths occur annually; this accounts for almost 1/3rd of cervical cancer deaths across the globe. Every 7 minutes, a woman in India dies of cervical cancer (it affects the mouth of uterus/womb, called the cervix). The human papilloma virus or HPV causes 99.7% of cases of cervical cancer.
What is Cervical Cancer?
HPV is essentially a sexually transmitted disease that comes in excess of 100 different forms. While some of these show no symptoms, others cause verrucas or genital warts. Around 15 different strands are linked to this cancer; with 2 types (HPV 16 &18) alone affect approximately 70 percent of patients. In most cases, the body’s immune system clears this virus within 2 years, while women who have weaker immune systems may not be able to get rid of it.
A small percentage of women tend to have persistent infection – the medical world has still not been able to ascertain the reasons for this. What is known is that women who have an impaired immune system are generally the ones who have persistent infections. Though there are no clear-cut indicators, it’s possible to spot this virus when routine cervical smear-tests are being carried out.
It can take between 10-20 years for this cancer to develop post the HPV infection, but catching the infection on time becomes one of the best ways of treating it successfully. Apart from HPV, cervical cancer could also be caused by smoking, bearing children at an extremely young age/having many children & in some cases, long-term contraceptive pill use can also up the risk of cervical cancer.
The early signs of cervical cancer are extremely non-specific. There could be excessive vaginal discharge with a very unpleasant odour, or the discharge may be tinged with blood/ the woman may suffer from lower abdomen pain. If the cancer has moved into an advanced stage, there could and bleeding & pain during intercourse or the woman may suffer from excessive weight loss etc
Theoretically, cervical cancer is preventable by screening. This is because any early changes in the cervix’s cells can easily be picked-up during screening, well before the cancer actually develops. Cervical cancer treatment is based on the stage at which it’s detected – to a certain degree; it also depends on whether the woman wants to attempt to conserve fertility. If this cancer is detected very early, it’s possible to treat it using the cone biopsy method- in this procedure; a small portion of the cervix is removed. This leaves the woman’s womb intact so that she can have children.
If the woman has already completed having a family, she can opt to have a hysterectomy. However, there are cases in which the disease may sometimes be in an advanced stage (but confined to the woman’s cervix). In this case, the radical hysterectomy treatment is used – in this operation, the woman’s womb will be removed and so will the tissue that is around the womb. In addition to this, the lymph glands that are in the pelvis will also be removed.
If the patient is younger, the ovaries might be left behind in order that she doesn’t go through menopause. If the cancer has reached a much later stage, it will be treated with radiation and chemotherapy. The simple fact here is that when it comes to cervical cancer, early detection increases the chances of a cure. This is where awareness about the disease and its symptoms come into the picture.
Immunization is Important
Now, it’s possible to prevent this disease in women by vaccination. All women in the 9-45 years age group should get the cervical cancer vaccination. Giving this vaccine early adds to its protection quotient. Women who are above the age of 20 years should get an annual cervical cancer screening done, regardless of what their immunization status is. As is the case with all cancers, early detection becomes one of the most important factors in the cure of this dreaded disease and this will come only when women become more aware about this disease, its symptoms, prevention and cure.