February 25, 2018

Cervical Cancer is beatable

By Anu Dev

“Prevention is better than cure.” – Desiderius Erasmus
January is “Cervical Cancer Awareness Month”!

In my gynecology rotation, one of the questions we got asked by different doctors was, “What’s one of the most preventable types of cancer?” And the answer was always the same, “cervical cancer”.
Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable types of cancer. That’s because there is both a sensitive test for detecting pre-cancerous lesions — the pap smear — and there’s an effective method of dealing with HPV, one of the most prominent risk factors for the disease.
But before I go into that, perhaps an anatomy refresher might be necessary. Where exactly is the cervix? Well it’s actually the lower part of the uterus (womb), and it connects the cavity of the uterus to the vagina. In non-pregnant women, it’s about an inch long and is roughly cylindrical. And during labour, it dilates to allow the baby to pass through. It’s the body part that people are usually dramatically shouting about in movies when they’re yelling, “She’s 10 centimetres dilated! She’s gonna have this baby right now, on the subway!” Or you know, wherever the plot needs the woman to give birth.
In all types of cancer, the problem begins when cells deviate from their fixed growth patterns and appointed job descriptions and start growing uncontrollably. This can happen in the lungs, in the colon, and in the cervix.
In cervical cancer, the cells don’t suddenly make the switch from normal to cancerous growth; there’s a stage in between. This in-between stage can be picked up on a pap smear, and intervention can be made before the cells have a chance to progress to the cancerous stage.
We’re all well aware about the link between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer, but do we know what factors can increase your risk of cervical cancer? Well, for starters, cigarette smoking also increases your risk of getting cervical cancer. It’s a twofold risk increase compared with nonsmokers, actually. As an aside, smoking also increases your risk of developing bladder, stomach, mouth, throat, and a whole host of other cancers. Yeah, as far as vices go, that’s a pretty bad one to have.
The other risk factor I’d like to mention is HPV infection. Certain strains of the HPV virus, HPV 16 and HPV 18, are associated with the development of cervical cancer.
In fact, it is believed that a woman must be infected with HPV in order to develop cervical cancer.
There currently are vaccines like Gardasil and Cervarix that are available to prevent infection by HPV; and, by extension, prevent cervical cancer.
Current recommendation for screening for cervical cancer via pap smear are for women aged between 21 and 65 years to be tested every 3 years. So if you’re due for a pap smear, make sure you get one. If you’re not vaccinated against HPV, talk to your doctor about getting vaccinated. This is one type of cancer against which we have the tools and the know-how to try to prevent before it even gets a foot in the door.