Cervical Cancer: Causes, Symptoms And Treatment

Do you know that cervical cancer is the second-most common cancer among women in India? It is a malignant tumor of the lower part of the uterus. Learn about its symptoms, causes and treatment.

By Dr Bandita Sinha  • 8 min read

Cervical Cancer: Causes, Symptoms And Treatment

Nasreen Begum 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 the 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. Read further to learn about cervical cancer symptoms, how it is caused, and its treatment.

What is cervical cancer?

In cervical cancer, a malignant tumor 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.

Cervical cancer causes and risk factors

  • Infection with human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Early sexual activity
  • Unprotected sex
  • Having multiple sexual partners
  • Long term use of oral contraceptives (birth control pills)
  • Smoking

Signs and 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 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 smelly discharge from the vagina, which may contain some blood and may occur between periods or after menopause. Also, pain in the back, leg or pelvis, 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 papillomavirus (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 the smear test is abnormal, the patient may be referred for a colposcopy for a biopsy to be taken. Also, a pelvic examination will be done, which involves an 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 gynaecologist oncologist, radiation oncologist and medical oncologist.

HPV vaccine

Cervical Cancer: Causes, Symptoms And Treatment

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.

About the expert:

Written by Dr Bandita Sinha on 6 April 2018; updated on 30 October 2019

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

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