Every year the world earmarks January as the month to raise awareness on cervical cancer, this is so because it is one of the highest causes of cancer deaths in women, yet it is preventable. The yearly campaign aims to bring to fore the role of education and awareness in preventing and reducing the scourge of cervical cancer.
The cervix, though often overlooked as a functional member of the female reproductive system plays a vital role in the female body. For instance, it is the ultimate gatekeeper of the uterus, protecting it from invasion from bacteria and other harmful pathogens. It serves as a passage for the flow of menstrual products from the uterus to the vagina opening. It also facilitates the successful passage of sperm from the vagina into the uterus during ovulation. When pregnancy is achieved, the cervix has a focal role in ensuring the safety of the foetus within the uterine cavity. Finally, when the vagina delivery of the baby is imminent, the cervix changes its morphology to allow the passage of the baby from the uterus into the vagina opening.
As with most cancers, the invasion of the cervix will cause great harm to the body hence, preventing its occurrence is worth its salt in ensuring overall wellbeing. The origin of most cancers is largely unknown nonetheless, a number of predisposing factors are indicated in the aetiology of cervical cancer. The commonly known ones are:
· Infection with the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) - gotten from an infected sexual partner
· Early initiation of first sexual intercourse – which puts you at risk of contacting HPV
· Intercourse with a partner who has multiple sexual partners – puts you at risk of contacting
HPV and other STDs
· Having multiple sexual partners
· Unprotected sexual intercourse or activity
· Long standing infection of other Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STD) such as Chlamydia, Gonorrhea and Syphilis
· Long term use of Oral contraceptives
· Family history of cervical cancer
· Low immune status
There are over 100 HPV strains however, only 13 are currently known to be linked with Cervical cancer. The following are important facts about cervical cancer you need to remember
· Women of all ages are at risk of developing cervical cancer, however, it often occurs in women aged 30 and above.
· Human Papilloma Virus is the number one known cause of cervical cancer
· HPV is spread through sexual activity
· Both men and women can be infected with HPV without presenting with symptoms for years
· 80% of male and females who are sexually active have been infected with HPV
· Not all strains of HPV are covered by the vaccine, consequently there is need to be cautious and engage in safe sexual practices despite having received the HPV vaccine.
Bear in mind that all forms of sexual activity can expose one to HPV infection. In order to avoid exposure to this risk factors, here are a number of things that are helpful:
· Delay onset of first sexual activity
· Use condoms during intercourse
· Avoid having multiple sexual partners
· Avoid intercourse with someone with multiple sexual partners
· Report any unusual discharge or lower abdominal symptoms to your health provider
· Get Vaccinated - previously, HPV vaccination was recommended for males and females between the ages of 9 and 26. Recently, it has also been recommended for people age 26 to 45 years. However, it is crucial to note that vaccination is said to be most effective if it is obtained before the recipient’s first sexual activity and exposure to HPV. See diagram below for the age appropriate schedules for cervical screening as recommended by the American Cancer Society.
It is important to remember that cervical cancer may not present with any signs until it may be too late to effectively intervene. This is why early detection via scheduled screening is highly recommended. Still, common symptoms that may point to cervical cancer are
· Bleeding between periods
· Bleeding after sexual intercourse
· Bleeding in postmenopausal women
· Discomfort during sexual intercourse
· Vaginal discharge with strong odour
· Blood stained vagina discharge
· Pelvic pain.
Most importantly, if you or anyone you know have any of these symptoms, please see your doctor immediately so that appropriate investigations are done to determine its origin and cause. In the words of Jim Rohn “Take care of your body, it is the only place you have to live”. Do well to do all you can to ensure your wellbeing for Health is our greatest Wealth!
Dr. Anne Olowu writes from Lagos, Nigeria
Photo Credit: World Health Organization
Additional References: American Cancer Society, Center for disease Control, Medical News Today, National Foundation for Cancer Research and World Health Organization