This month is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, which means that it’s time to consider how at risk we are and how we can reduce that risk. As they say, prevention is better than cure, and in this case, early detection can literally save your life.
Determining your risk
In South Africa, cervical cancer is the second-most-common cancer in women and is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths.
Of all cervical cancer cases diagnosed in South Africa, 82.7% were diagnosed in black women and 9% in white women. Research has indicated that cervical cancer is most common in women aged 15 – 44 years.
For cancer to develop, the cervix needs to be infected with high-risk types of human papillomavirus (HPV). Research has shown a strong causal relationship between HPV and cervical cancer. HPV types 16 and 18 are most commonly associated with cervical cancer and account for around 70% of all cervical cancer cases.
Due to a suppressed immune system, women with HIV have an increased risk of HPV infection and are often diagnosed with cervical cancer at an earlier age.
Symptoms of cervical cancer include, but aren’t limited to abnormal bleeding between periods, vaginal discharge, a heavier and longer menstrual period, increased urinary frequency, and pain during sex or after menopause.
How to reduce your risk
The most common (and important!) ways you can prevent cervical cancer is to be vaccinated early and have regular screening tests. These tests include Pap smears and HPV tests.
Having regular Pap smears will help detect any abnormal cells in the cervix that could develop into cervical cancer. The test involves taking a swab of the cervical cells. While the test can be uncomfortable, it is not painful.
If identified early, abnormal cells can be removed before they develop into cancerous cells. Early detection and treatment of pre-cancerous legions prevent up to 80% of cervical cancers. It is therefore essential that you seek treatment as soon as abnormal cells are detected.
All women who have been sexually active should start having Pap smears from the age of 18. Pap smears should be done every three years to ensure early detection.
The HPV vaccine offers protection against the types of HPV that typically cause cervical cancer. The vaccine is recommended for children aged 11-12, but can be administered as early as 9 years of age. The vaccine is recommended up to the age of 26, after which it provides less benefit due to the likelihood of already having been exposed to HPV.
Some adults over 26 may decide to get the HPV vaccine to prevent new infections, but should discuss the possible benefits with their doctor beforehand. The vaccine prevents new infections but does not treat existing infections, which is why it is best administered before any possible HPV exposure.
Regardless of vaccination status, you should still get routinely screened.
Lifestyle changes that can help prevent cervical cancer
As with any sexually transmitted disease, certain lifestyle changes can help reduce your risk of infection. In the case of cervical cancers, doctors recommend the use of condoms during sex, and limit your number of sexual partners.
Naturally, a healthy lifestyle that includes eating well, exercising, and not smoking goes a long way in helping fight any disease.
Contact your local Clinix to arrange for a Pap smear or HPV vaccination or if you have any questions regarding the above information. We are always ready to assist you. Be safe. Get screened.