Who can get cervical cancer?
The cells of the cervix can undergo cancerous changes in any female, however there are some risk factors which can increase the chances of developing a cancer.
- Human Papillomavirus (HPV) infection: Most cases of cervical cancer are linked with HPV infection. It is a virus which is transmitted to the cervix during sexual intercourse.
- Sexual activity: Sexually active females are more at risk.
- Multiple sexual partners: Presence of multiple partners increase the risk of getting HPV infection which can ultimately lead to carcinoma of the cervix.
- Smoking: The toxic components in cigarette smoke are also implicated in cervical cancer development.
- Oral Contraceptives: Use of oral contraceptives for a long time can also increase the risk of developing carcinoma of cervix.
- Multiple pregnancies: Women who have given birth to three or more babies are at a higher risk for developing cervical cancer.
- Early sexual activity: Women who have a history of sexual activity early on in their life are at an increased risk.
- Sexually Transmitted Infections: Women with a history of various STIs like AIDS, chlamydia, gonorrhea etc. are more likely to develop cervical cancer.
- Immunocompromised individuals: HPV infections are usually handled well by the immune system. However, when the individual is immunocompromised, i.e., their immune system is weak, this infection can result in cancer.
Prevention of cervical cancer
Cervical cancer is a disease of high mortality. Coupled with the fact that most women in India are hesitant to approach a doctor for sexual complaints, it becomes imperative to try and prevent the disease altogether.
- Safe sexual practices: Using a barrier method (condoms) can prevent transmission of sexually transmitted infections very effectively. Further maintaining sexual hygiene is also beneficial.
- Sexual Partners: It is important to limit the number of sexual partners to reduce the chances of getting infected.
- Smoking: Cessation of smoking can bring down the chances of developing cervical cancer drastically.
- Vaccine: These days vaccines are available against HPV which is to be administered as a single dose, before the woman becomes sexually active. Use of this vaccine should be recommended in all the females who might fall in the high-risk groups.
- Apart from preventing STDs, it is also important to undergo regular screening by Pap Smear Test. It can help catch the disease sooner and also in precancerous stages, which can be managed effectively.
Symptoms of cervical cancer
Carcinoma of the Cervix is usually a silent disease in the early stages which again highlights the importance of being vigilant and catching the disease as early as possible.
- Abnormal bleeding: Bleeding from the vagina in between periods, after menopause, during or after sex etc. should raise the alarm for a probable malignancy.
- Pain during sex can be one of the earliest notable symptoms.
- Pain in the pelvic region can be a symptom.
- Any unusual, foul-smelling discharge should be taken up with a doctor early on.
- Changes in menstrual periods, like increase in length, change in consistency or flow should raise suspicions and be checked out by a doctor.
When to approach a doctor?
Any female with symptoms that concern her should approach a doctor as soon as possible. Further screening is recommended, once in every three years for women who:
- Are sexually active
- Have past history of STDs (HIV infected females should undergo screening annually)
- Are smokers
- Have any concerning symptoms
What can be done at home?
- Pelvic floor exercises: Kegel exercises are recommended to regain the pelvic floor strength which is compromised in cervical cancer patients. This can be performed by tightening and releasing the pelvic muscles (pretend you’re starting and stopping the urine flow). The whole cycle should be repeated in sets of 10.
- Aerobic Exercises: Daily brisk walks, jogging, swimming have shown to be helpful in regaining normalcy in daily life and also in reducing weight.
- Balancing Exercises: Yoga and other balancing exercises help improve the coordination of the individual.
Note: Strength training and heavy lifting is to be avoided unless recommended by the therapist.
- A diagnosis of a disease like cervical cancer can wreck a woman’s life. It is important to offer her emotional support without any judgement.
- Proper psychiatric or psychological help should be taken if the patient feels anxious or loses interest in activities which were earlier enjoyable.
- The patient should educate herself from valid resources and not believe in hear-say stories.
- Keep oneself busy by working on a hobby. It helps alleviate stress and also ensures productivity of the suffering individual.
- The woman should be counselled in a safe space where she can voice out her concerns without the fear of judgement. Her partner(s) should also be counselled and screened for STIs.
- The woman should be encouraged to join a support group of similarly diagnosed females. It will help in accepting and coping up with the disease.
- The woman and her partner should be counselled about safe sex practices, use of barrier methods to prevent STIs etc.
- Cessation of smoking and alcohol can help the patient recover faster and prevents further damage to the body.
- Increased intake of fruits and vegetables, legumes can help cleanse the body. Simultaneously it is recommended to decrease intake of excessive salt, fat, spices, caffeine etc.
- Daily exercise is recommended. Apart from helping in regaining body functions, it also helps in alleviating stress.
- Meditation can help relax the mind and body, and also alleviate stress.
To commence a treatment, the doctor will need a couple of investigations like pap smear, biopsy, CT-scan etc. to grade the cancer. Depending on this grade, the severity of the disease and the outcome of the treatment can be predicted.
- Medicines: Medical science has evolved enough to be able to control the growth of cancerous tissues with various anticancer medicines. It is usually preferred in those individuals who do not show any metastasis of the cancer.
- Surgery: Cervical cancers can also be operated on and removed with a satisfactory result.
- Radiotherapy: Radiation can help destroy the cancerous tissues and is highly effective in individuals who do not opt for surgery.
- Lifestyle Modifications: A change in diet, daily exercise and cessation of smoking can help improve the outcome of the treatment.
- Counselling: In a disease like cervical cancer, it is important to educate the patient and her family, mitigate their doubts and concerns, and give her emotional support to tide over the illness.
This article is meant to guide and educate the patients. All medical treatment is to be undertaken under the guidance of expert medical service providers only.