“Encouragement to all women is – let us try to offer help before we have to offer therapy. That is to say, let’s see if we can’t prevent being ill by trying to offer a love of prevention before illness.” -Maya Angelou
January is “Cervical Cancer Awareness Month”, and I was very pleased when my mom told me there were several activities and media releases in Guyana to sensitise women about this scourge.
In my gynaecology rotation, one of the questions we got asked by different doctors was, “What’s one of the most preventable types of cancer?” And the answer was always the same, “cervical cancer”. Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable types of cancer. That’s because there is both a sensitive test for detecting pre-cancerous lesions – the Pap smear – and there’s an effective method of dealing with HPV, one of the most prominent risk factors for the disease.
But before I go into that, perhaps an anatomy refresher might be necessary. Where exactly is the cervix? Well it’s actually the lower part of the uterus (womb) and it connects the cavity of the uterus to the vagina. In non-pregnant women, it’s about one inch long and roughly cylindrical. And during labour, it dilates to allow the baby to pass through – it’s the body part that people are usually dramatically shouting about in movies when they’re yelling, “She’s 10 centimetre’s dilated! She’s gonna have this baby right now, on the subway!” Or you know, wherever the plot needs the woman to give birth.
In all types of cancer, the problem is when cells deviate from their fixed growth patterns and their appointed job descriptions, and they start growing uncontrollably – this can happen in the lungs, in the colon and in the cervix.
In cervical cancer, the cells don’t suddenly make the switch from normal to cancerous growth – there’s a stage in between. This in-between stage can be picked up on a Pap smear and intervention can be made before the cells have a change to progress to the cancerous stage.
We’re all well aware about the link between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer, but what factors can increase your risk of cervical cancer?
Well, for starters, cigarette smoking also increases your risk of getting cervical cancer – it’s a twofold risk increase compared with non-smokers, actually. As an aside, smoking also increases your risk of developing bladder, stomach, mouth, throat and a whole host of other cancers. Yeah, as far as vices go, that’s a pretty bad one to have.
The other risk factor I’d like to mention is HPV infection. Certain strains of the HPV virus, HPV 16 and HPV 18, are associated with the development of cervical cancer. In fact, it is believed that a woman must be infected with HPV in order to develop cervical cancer.
There are currently vaccines like Gardasil and Cervarix that are available to prevent infection by HPV, and by extension, prevent cervical cancer.
Current recommendations for screening for cervical cancer via Pap smear are for women’s aged 21 to 65 to be tested every three years.
So if you’re due for a Pap smear, make sure you get one. The Guyana Cancer Foundation has announced that its offering free Pap smears for 100 underprivileged and under-insured women. If you’re not vaccinated against HPV, talk to your doctor about getting vaccinated. This is one type of cancer where we have the tools and the know-how to try to prevent it before it even gets a foot in the door.