Cervical cancer is among the most common types of cancer in women and is most often caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). There are approximately 120 strains of HPV and some are transmitted through sexual contact. Most strains are harmless and are cleared by the body. However, certain strains can cause genital warts (condylomas) or cancer of the cervix, vulva or vagina. It should be noted that these diseases do not develop in all women who contract HPV and that the virus can remain inactive for several years before causing any damage.
Cervical cancer is characterized by the propagation of abnormal cells on the cervix which leads to tumour growth. Luckily, these tumours grow very slowly which allows for early cancer detection through screening. Furthermore, those affected can take prompt and effective action.
The exact trigger factors are not really known. There are however, risk factors that predispose certain women to developing cervical cancer, such as:
- Having had prior sexually transmitted infections (STI)
- Having several sexual partners (or a partner who has had many)
- Having the human papilloma virus (HPV) infection
- Having had sexual relations at a young age (the tissue is still growing and is therefore more vulnerable)
- Multiple pregnancies
Cervical cancer is often asymptomatic, meaning that there are no symptoms. One may notice unusual vaginal discharge, bleeding (not related to menstruation) or pain during intercourse. These symptoms however, are not necessarily indicative of cancer. In fact, they are also common to vaginal bacterial infections and yeast infections. Women who experience these symptoms are encouraged to see their physician.
The physician may, during the course of your routine gynaecological examination, which includes a Pap smear and a few questions, detect a problem with the cervix. To confirm the diagnosis, it may be suggested that you have another Pap smear as well as a colposcopy. Various biopsies can be taken from the cervix during a colposcopy. Blood tests may also be requested. All these measures will allow the physician to confirm whether or not the diagnosis is cervical cancer and to determine its severity.
There are several treatment options for cervical cancer. The method of choice depends on the stage of the cancer and the level of desire in wanting to maintain one's ability to bear children.
Surgery is aimed at eliminating the cancerous tissue and is often the choice alternative. There are a few procedures available to women. Tumour ablation involves the removal of everything that could be affected. A laser can also be used to destroy cancerous cells. These two methods are effective in cases where the cancer is very localized and easy to target. In cases where the cancer is more spread out, a partial or total hysterectomy may be required. That particular procedure involves the removal of the uterus and/or ovaries.
In radiation therapy or radiotherapy, radiation is used to destroy cancerous cells. Radiation can be delivered from an internal or an external source. This type of treatment also has an impact on healthy cells and can cause side effects which can be somewhat prevented by taking certain medications.
Much like radiation therapy, chemotherapy can be used to treat various types of cancer. Chemotherapy involves treatment by means of chemical substances that attack the cancerous cells in the targeted organ. It is typically recommended when the cancer has spread since this type of treatment affects the entire body.
Vaccines against certain types of HPVs that are known to cause genital warts or cancers of the cervix, vulva and vagina, are available. These vaccines, known by the names Gardasil™ and Cervarix™, can prevent HPV infection but are not a cure. They are therefore not effective for those who are already infected. It is recommended that the vaccines be administered before one becomes sexually active. The target group for these vaccines is women between the ages of 9 and 26 years old.
Vaccines are an interesting option for women who are more at risk. Speak to your physician to see if you should be vaccinated. It is important to note that a vaccine does not replace yearly Pap tests! This test is the only way to screen for the disease and must be maintained regardless of whether or not you have been vaccinated.