#EMMAseries : DISPELLING MYTHS & GETTING ENLIGHTENED ABOUT CERVICAL CANCER – By Dr Femi Olaleye

CERVICAL CANCER

Q: Many women are not aware of what cervical cancer is…please explain to us what it means. What are the risk factors?

The cervix is the neck of the womb. Cervical cancer involves the cervix of a woman. It is a worldwide health concern for women. Almost 530,000 women are given a diagnoses of cervical cancer across the globe annually.

The main risk factor with regards to cervical cancer is SEX!

Majority of sexually active women are infected with the STI (sexually transmitted Infection) caused by a virus known as Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) during their lifetime. The risk of a woman getting infected with HPV (80% in her lifetime) increases as the number of her sexual partners increases. Men are generally not affected by HPV, but they can transmit the different strains or types of the virus (up to 15 HPV types can cause cervical cancer) from one woman to another despite the use of condoms, as HPV infection cannot be prevented using known barrier methods of contraception that are very effective against other forms of STIs such as HIV, gonorrhoea or syphilis.

Q: What are the symptoms?

Most women will never have symptoms until the later stage of the disease. Symptoms commonly associated with cervical cancer include foul-smelling vaginal discharge, blood-stained vaginal discharge that is difficult to get rid of. Also, bleeding after sex is commonly associated with cervical cancer. Post-menopausal bleeding and a feeling of heaviness in the pelvic area are also symptoms connected with the disease.

Q: Can untreated vaginal infection cause cervical cancer?

Persistent HPV infection will eventually change the cellular structure of the cervix of a woman and these changes will gradually cause mutation of the cells affected and this leads to cancer. Scientists have discovered that this process can take 5-30 years, and a lot of women can actually clear the infection themselves without any treatments, but a few will not be able to do so, and these are the ones that eventually develop cervical cancer. Sadly, these women are mothers, sisters, friends, colleagues, daughters and loved ones that dying from a cancer that its origins can be traced to sexual contact with a man.

Q. Can irregular change of sanitary pads cause it?

No.

Q. Does lack of proper hygiene put one at risk?

No but women are advised to be hygienic generally for other health benefits.

Q. Is it hereditary?

No – it is not a hereditary disease.

Q. How does one prevent or reduce chances of getting cervical cancer? How important is cervical screening? How often should a lady be screened?

Prevention is through vaccination against HPV and regular screening.

Effective vaccines against the causative organism, HPV have been developed and are now available in Nigeria. The vaccine was originally developed for teenage girls who were advised to take the vaccine before they commence sexual activity, but sexually-active women are now encouraged to take the vaccine as well as we now have evidence to demonstrate its effectiveness for sexually-active adults too.

Screening regularly (once in every 2-3 years) allows a woman to detect if the HPV virus has started changing her cervix, and if this is the case, we can quickly deal with the situation through a painless and effective procedure that is called ‘Cryotherapy’. This procedure involves freezing of the abnormal areas of the affected cervix, lasts less than 5 mins, and the woman can be checked again within 6 months and usually, at this time, the cervix would have healed nicely, and the cancer would have been averted from developing in such a woman.

Q. What age groups are at risk of getting it? Can it affect young girls, adolescents?

Almost all age groups are at risk as long as sexual activity is taking place. But generally, we recognise that younger women are more at risk as men who have sex with them tend to have other sexual partners, which therefore increases the risk of a younger woman getting infected with HPV.

Q. What is the incidence of cervical cancer in Nigeria?

A global cancer study (GLOBOCAN) in 2008 has helped us to pinpoint this figure roughly around 8,000 women annually, which is about a woman every hour dies from cervical cancer.

Q. At what age (or what stage) should a lady begin screening?

There is no age prescribed. Once a woman becomes sexually active, she should commence regular screening 2-3 years after that debut date till 65 years.

Q. Are treatment measures available?

Treatment measures available depending on the stage of the disease and the extent of spread are surgical removal of the womb (hysterectomy), chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Q. What are myths that a lot of Nigerian women seem to believe in?

I think we have shattered most of the myths but the commonly held view that cervical cancer affects only women that are promiscuous is so untrue. ALL SEXUALLY ACTIVE WOMEN ARE AT RISK OF CERVICAL CANCER, so all women should attend regular cancer screening.

As part of our objectives as a Foundation, we offer cancer screening services to women at subsidized fees across the country, in churches, markets, grass-root outreaches and corporate environment for busy women. We also offer FREE cancer screening for women on Fridays at 118 Bode Thomas Street in Surulere – Lagos.

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