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Women's Health: What is Cervical Cancer: One of the Most Preventable Cancers?

Every year, we observe the World cervical cancer awareness month globally in the month of January. The theme of this year's healthcare event is “Ending cervical cancer within a few generations.” It's a vital conversation to have, as cervical cancer is one of the most common cancers in women while being an easily preventable one.

What is cervical cancer?

The cervix comprises two types of cells: the squamous cells and the glandular cells. 80-90% of cervical cancer cases start in the squamous cells.

Cervical cancer develops when abnormal cells in the cervix grow and multiply uncontrollably. These abnormal cells can be caused by a sexually transmitted virus called human papillomavirus (HPV).

What are the symptoms?

Cervical cancer rarely has any symptoms in the early stage. Only when the cancer has advanced, one might notice:

  • Irregular vaginal bleeding or discharge
  • Pain during intercourse

The good news is that screening tests can detect cervical cancer and the presence of HPV virus quickly.

What are the symptoms?

Two key reasons why cervical cancer is considered highly preventable are:

  • Vaccination: The HPV vaccine protects against the most common cancer-causing HPV strains. All children aged 9-14 should get their dose of HPV vaccine.
  • Screening: Regular Pap smears and HPV tests can detect precancerous changes in the cervix before they become cancerous. Early detection allows for timely treatment and prevents cancer from developing.

What are the risk factors for cervical cancer?

Most women get cervical cancer between the ages of 20 to 50. This is the period when you should go for screenings and keep an active tab on your health. Some other risk factors include:

  • Smoking and consumption of tobacco products
  • Long-term use of birth control pills
  • Weaker immune system
  • Family history, i.e., cases of cervical cancer in your mother or sister
  • Getting pregnant before 17
  • Having 3 or more full-term pregnancies
  • Lack of regular cervical cancer screenings (Pap tests)
  • Multiple sexual partners or early sexual activity

How often should you get screened?

Regular Pap tests can detect abnormal changes in the cervix cells before cancer develops. Early detection through screenings allows for timely treatment and significantly improves survival rates.

If you are at an average risk of having cervical cancer, the screening guidelines for you are:

  • From age 21-29: have a Pap test once in 3 years
  • Between age 30-65: have a Pap test once in 3 years. If you're at risk, then go for a high-risk HPV test.

Your healthcare provider can guide you better based on your individual condition and symptoms.

What are the preventive measures against cervical cancer?

  • HPV vaccination is the greatest prevention against high-risk HPV infections.
  • Young adults should have proper information on having safe sex to reduce HPV transmissions.
  • Avoiding smoking and living a healthy lifestyle contributes to preventing the disease.
  • Women with slight risk factors should also start getting screened at age 21 or earlier, as per your healthcare provider.

Despite its preventability, cervical cancer can be a threat to women due to the lack of awareness, stigma and limited access to healthcare systems. This is why it's important to talk about cervical cancer openly in our social circles and help women in prioritising their health.

Johns Hopkins
Pace Hospitals