Cervical Cancer: Awareness Is The Key

Do you know that cervical cancer is the second-most common cancer among women in India? Good news is that it is the only cancer that can be cured with the help of a vaccine. All we need is awareness.

By Dr Bandita Sinha

Cervical Cancer: Awareness Is The Key

Nasreen Begam works as a domestic help in the Mehra households for many years. Of late, Nasreen gets tired easily doing her regular chores and she also has a swollen leg for some days. When Mrs Mehra asks her about this, she slowly opens up and tells that she is also having other problems like irregular periods and pain during intercourse.

Mother of three, Nasreen was married off early by her poor parents. Three early pregnancies took a toll on her. When Mrs Mehra advises her to see a doctor immediately, she confides that she is reluctant to go to the male doctor in the neighbourhood as it will affect her modesty. When Mrs Mehra insists on accompanying her to a female gynaecologist, Nasreen finally agrees to see a doctor and go for the pap smear test.

There are many young women like Nasreen who shy away from visiting a doctor to consult for their sexual health. However, a simple test like pap smear test could save them from dreaded diseases like cervical cancer.

India has a population of 436.76 million women aged 15 years and older who are at a risk of developing cervical cancer, according to the National Health Portal. Cervical cancer is the most frequent of all the genital tract cancers in India.

What is cervical cancer:

In cervical cancer, a malignant tumour develops in the lower-most part of the uterus (womb), it occurs when abnormal cells on the cervix grow out of control. The cervix is the lower part of the uterus that opens into the vagina.

Symptoms of cervical cancer:

If you notice irregular periods, spotting between periods and abnormal vaginal bleeding after intercourse or post menopause, immediately consult the doctor. Cervical cancer is difficult to diagnose in the pre-cancerous stage. However, a pap smear test can detect irregularities, even early stage abnormalities in the cervix. Therefore, it is advisable that all sexually active women should regularly conduct a pap smear test to rule out any irregularities. Bleeding after douching or post a pelvic examination are other symptoms of the disease. One could also experience vaginal discomfort or odourous discharge from vagina, this discharge may contain some blood and may occur between periods or after menopause. Also, pain during sex, pain in the back, leg or pelvic, fatigue, weight loss, loss of appetite or a single swollen leg could be some of the symptoms.

Treatment of cervical cancer:

Cervical cancer can be successfully treated, if diagnosed early. A pap smear screening and a Human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine is helpful to prevent cervical cancer.

Pap smear test:

The pap test or pap smear test is used to detect abnormal cells that may develop into cancer if left untreated. The doctor may apply a dilute acetic acid solution (vinegar solution) to the cervix, which causes abnormal areas to turn white. Further, a biopsy can be taken from abnormal areas. HPV testing is used to look for the presence of high-risk HPV types in cervical cells. If smear test is abnormal, patient may be referred for a colposcopy for a biopsy to be taken. Also, a pelvic examination will be done, which involves internal examination of the vagina and adjacent organ by the gynaecologist.

If you have any abnormal pap test result, it's important to follow it up with your doctor so that you can get treatment for abnormal cell changes.

The treatment for cervical cancer includes surgery, radiation and chemotherapy based on the varied stages of the disease. When cancer is diagnosed, the treatment frequently requires a multi-disciplinary approach with the involvement of a gynaecologic oncologist, radiation oncologist and medical oncologist.

HPV vaccine:

Girls aged twenty-six or younger can get the HPV vaccine, which protects against types of HPV that cause most cases of cervical cancer. We can reduce the mortality rate if adolescence girls are encouraged to take the HPV vaccine to prevent cervical cancer.

Who are at risk:

Those women who have multiple pregnancies and more than one sexual partners, early first sexual intercourse, long term use of hormonal contraceptives, tobacco use, and low socio-economic status and poor hygiene are at increased risk of cervical cancer. It is also found that those women with a diet which is low in antioxidants are also prone to fall victim of this disease. This makes it crucial for all those who are sexually active to get themselves diagnosed periodically.

Awareness about the disease:

A simple pap smear test could prevent many lives when it comes to cervical cancer. But due to lack of awareness and social stigmas attached to it, women are hesitant to come forward and go for the screening test. More awareness about the disease is the need of the hour.

Dr Bandita Sinha is a gynaecologist and infertility specialist in the World of Women, Mumbai.

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