Every year, nearly 1,00,000 cervical cancer cases are reported among Indian women, making it the second commonest cancer, next only to breast cancer. Most cases are diagnosed at an advanced stage, primarily due to lack of awareness. Although the initial stages of cervical cancer may not have any significant physical symptoms, early detection is possible through screening. Why are some women at higher risk for cervical cancer? What signs and symptoms should one watch out for? Read on to find out.
The word ‘cervix’ means ‘neck’. The lower part of the womb (uterus) or the ‘neck’ of the uterus, which is like a hollow narrow tube and opens into the vagina, is called the cervix of the uterus. Cancer that originates in the cervix of the uterus is called cervical cancer. When the cancer originates in the cells that form the lining of the uterus, it is called squamous cell carcinoma. When it originates in the deeper glandular cells that produce the cervical mucus, it is called adenocarcinoma.
Here are a few factors that increase a woman’s risk for cervical cancer:
· Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection: Virtually all cases of cervical cancers occur due to prolonged exposure to certain types of HPV. These viruses are transmitted primarily through sexual intercourse. Vaccination against HPV can help prevent cervical cancer.
· Sexual activity: All women who have ever been sexually active are at increased risk of cervical cancer. Sexual activity potentially exposes women to HPV infection.
· Multiple sexual partners: Having multiple sexual partners increases the chances of acquiring HPV infection, the primary cause of cervical cancer. But a woman can get cervical cancer even if she has had sex with only one partner all her life, if the partner has HPV infection.
· Early age at first sexual intercourse: Cervical cancer rarely affects those younger than 20 years. However, an early age at first coitus means they are exposed to HPV for much longer time. This is because women often get exposed to HPV infection soon after their first coitus.
· Other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs): Women who have other STDs often have low immunity and their body is unable to fight HPV adequately.
· Smoking: In women who smoke, tobacco by-products can be found in the cervical mucus. These substances can damage the cells of the cervix and contribute to the development of cancer. Smokers also have low immunity and therefore, are not able to fight HPV infection effectively.
· Exposure to miscarriage prevention drug: Diethystilbesterol (DES) is a synthetic estrogen medicine that was widely prescribed from 1940 to the early 1970s, to prevent miscarriage and preterm labor. If your mother took DES, you may have an increased risk for cervical cancer.
Remember that having any one or more of these factors does not mean you will have cervical cancer. It simply means if you have any of these factors, your chance of having the cancer is higher than a woman who does not have these risk factors.
Watch out for signs and symptoms that may indicate a cancerous change in the cervix. Early changes in the cervix are at the cellular level. There are no tell-tale symptoms. However, a Pap test can help detect early changes, sometimes, even before it develops in to cancer. Ask your doctor about Pap test.
If you notice any of these symptoms, do contact your doctor for further advice. Any of these could be a sign of cervical cancer.
· Spotting or light bleeding between or following periods
· More prolonged or heavier menstrual bleeding than your usual periods
· Pain during sexual intercourse
· Bleeding after intercourse or douching or a pelvic examination
· Increased amount of vaginal discharge
· Vaginal discharge that has a foul odor
· Vaginal bleeding even after you have had your menopause
· Unexplained and persistent pain in the lower back or in the pelvic area
These symptoms may be due to other causes also, including a vaginal or cervical infection. In order to be sure that it is not cancer, you need to see a doctor when you notice any of these abnormalities.