Cervix is the neck of the uterus, which connects the vagina and uterus. When the cancer cells affect the lowermost part of the uterus or when a malignant tumour forms, it is called cervical cancer. Though cervical cancer is the 4th most common type of cancer among women worldwide, it is also one of the cancers that are almost preventable with vaccines and treatable if detected early.
According to the World Health Organization, cervical cancer is estimated to be six lakh four thousand new cases and three lakh forty-two thousand deaths in 2020 alone globally. However, doctors point out that many women are unaware of the condition.
Dr Suhasini Inamdar, Consultant, Obstetrician, and Gynaecologist, at Motherhood Hospitals, Bengaluru, says that due to a lack of awareness women hardly come for testing and diagnosis in the early stages.
What is cervical cancer?
Abnormal cell growth inside the female reproductive system, at the mouth of the uterus, is the beginning stage of cervical cancer. As WHO puts it, more than 95 % of cervical cancer is due to Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). Also, HPV, a sexually transmitted infection is the most common infection to occur in the reproductive tract.
Cervical cancer begins with abnormal cell changes in the cervical tissue. These cells may convert to cancerous cells if left untreated.
Possible symptoms of cervical cancer
“Cervical cancer generally does not produce any noticeable signs and symptoms in the early stage. Women tend to notice the signs only when it has reached a more advanced stage, but by then it could be too late,” explains Dr Inamdar.
Indian Cancer Society mentions some symptoms in the advanced phases of cervical cancer, such as:
- Irregular, inter-menstrual (between periods) bleeding
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding after sexual intercourse and a pelvic examination
- Bleeding after menopause
- Vaginal discomfort or odorous discharge from the vagina, the discharge may contain some blood and may occur between periods or after menopause.
- Pain during sex
- Back, leg or pelvic pain
- Fatigue, weight loss, loss of appetite
- Swelling in one leg
Causes of cancer in the cervix
“Cervical cancer is more common in sexually active women, and it is caused by a virus called the HPV virus, which affects the mouth of the womb or the cervix,” says Dr Prathima Reddy, director, and lead consultant, department of obstetrics and gynaecology, Sparsh Hospital for Women and Children, Bengaluru.
“Certain women may have risk factors that make them more vulnerable to cervical cancer, like a history of smoking, a weakened immune system due to medical treatments, or an HIV infection,” says Dr Inamdar. While women between 25 to 49 years should undergo a Pap smear test every three years, for those with risk factors the frequency of Pap Smear tests, adds Dr Inamdar.
Screening to check cell changes
There are main tests to examine cervical cancer at an eage – Pap test and HPV test.
- The presence of the HPV virus and the cell changes in the cervical tissue can be checked through The HPV test
- Pap tests help reduce the risk of the development of cervical cancer
Pap smear test is offered to all women between 25 and 64. “A pap smear (cervical smear) is a test of the cervix or the mouth of the womb. Your doctor will take a sample of cells from the cervix which will then be read by a pathologist under a microscope. It’s important to remember that a Pap smear is done to help prevent cancer and not to detect cancer, adds Dr Reddy.
Treatment for cervical cancer involves surgery where the malignant tumour and surrounding tissues are removed. Depending on the state of cancer in the cervix, affected women may also have undergone the removal of the uterus (Hysterectomy). Doctors add that in some cases, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
“Cervical cancer can be prevented through HPV vaccination, regular screening helps to detect cancer early which increases the success rate of treatment,” says Dr Inamdar.
The Indian government has listed the HPV vaccination as one of the recommended vaccinations for girls aged between 9 – 14 years to prevent cervical cancer.