Not all incidents make news – some do. When Jade Goody, the international reality television star, died of cervical cancer a few years back, it made quite a news. Not because she had shot to fame for all the wrong reasons, or not because she died a public death, but her death made the world wake up to an issue that was long due – cervical cancer – the second most common malignancy and a leading cause of cancer-related death for women all across the world.
The word Cancer is enough to push anyone into a depressing glum. Facing the disease is another challenge altogether. In women, one such cancer that is of detrimental nature is cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is cancer of the cervix, the lower narrow part of the uterus (womb). Cervical cancer develops when some of the normal cells in the cervix become abnormal and start to grow in an uncontrolled way. The uterus is a pear-shaped organ where a baby grows inside the mother’s body during pregnancy. The mouth of uterus is cervix that forms a canal which opens into the vagina and this is called the birth canal. When cells of cervix turn cancerous, cervical cancer ensues. It’s the commonest cancer in India and second commonest in the world. This is a very malignant cancer with high mortality rate. However, it is preventable and treatable if detected at early stage.
Commonest form of cancer
Cervical cancer is known to affect mostly women aged between 50 to 55 years. All women who have active sexual lives are at a risk of contracting this disease. In India, it is the commonest form of cancer, followed by breast cancer. For more than last 30 years now there has been a constant campaigning against this killer disease, but this has had little impact on the death rate in the country. Today, India ranks fourth worldwide in terms of mortality from cervical cancer. According to a recent study, the mortality is further estimated to rise to 79,000 by 2010.
Sexually transmitted disease
Cervical cancer is not hereditary. Human Papilloma Virus or HPV infection is the causal factor of cervical cancer. There are around 100 different HPV types. Approximately 40 of these can infect the genital tract and can be classified as non-cancer-causing types and cancer-causing types. The cancer-causing types, of which there are approximately 15, could cause the growth of abnormal cells on the cervix. The virus is usually cleared naturally but sometimes it persists inside the cells of the cervix and could cause abnormal cells to develop. If these cells are left undetected and untreated, they could go on to develop into cervical cancer. The most common cancer-causing types are 16 and 18 – these two are responsible for 70% of cervical cancer globally. HPV is passed from person to person through sexual or skin to skin contact in the genital area.
It is a sexually transmitted disease (STD), which means it is transmitted through body fluid while having unprotected sex. Rubbing of the private parts can also cause it. Most people never even know that they have HPV while having regular sex, and transmit it to the partners (men mostly act as carriers). It is only after years that the symptoms start showing up, and one becomes aware of it, but often that is too late. So, the only way out is screening at regular intervals.
Go for regular check-ups
The awareness level among women is still low; it’s lower in smaller cities and towns. These ladies they do not go for regular gynecological checkups or routine pap smears. The symptoms like spotting or bleeding after intercourse are not addressed, leading to spread of cancer before they are detected, leading to higher death rates.
Women with cervical cancer may feel quite well and not show any signs or symptoms of being unwell for a long time. Vaginal bleeding between periods and new bleeding after the menopause could be signs of cervical cancer. However, these symptoms are not always due to cervical cancer. Regular check-ups involving a pelvic exam and ‘pap smear’ will help early diagnosis of cervical cancer. The Pap smear detects changes in the cervix that might become cervical cancer if they are not detected and treated.
The Pap smear (Papanicolaou test) test is an easy way to detect early changes in cells of the cervix, the lower end of the uterus or womb. A Pap smear is taken during an internal examination of the vagina. A speculum is inserted into the vagina and some cells are then taken from the cervix using a small spatula and smeared on a glass slide and sent to a medical laboratory to be checked for abnormality. It is important that all women have a Pap smear test every two years.