What is Cervical Cancer and is it Curable?
Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that develops in the cervix of the uterus of a woman, caused by the human papilloma virus. The second most common type of cancer in women worldwide is the cervical cancer. Caused by Human Papillomavirus infection, a sexually transmitted infection, it mostly occurs in women in their productive period of life, on an average of 38 years. The rise of cervical cancer occurs in 30 to 34 years and is in the peak of its forms in the age of 55 to 65 years. However, with the medical advancements, proper treatment and preventive measures, cervical cancer can not only be cured but it can also be prevented. Before, we know more about the survival rate of cervical cancer and its treatment and cure, let us read about the symptoms, causes, risk factors and stages of cervical cancer.
Signs and Symptoms of Cervical Cancer:
Cervical cancer usually does not come along with prominent signs and symptoms. Hence, it is very important to undergo the cancer screening tests or Pap Smear tests to check if cervical cancer has developed or not. This test is usually offered to women within the age group of 25 years to 64 years. In this test, a small brush wipes some of the cells from the cervix (the entrance from the vagina to the womb). If any abnormality in these cells is found, it is a sign of a pre-cancer stage. From this stage, cervical cancer can be prevented. However, if the cervical cancer has already occurred, the treatments must be started at once. With abnormality, a few signs and symptoms of cervical cancer are seen and they are –
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding, especially after sex or between periods
- Pain during sex
- Smelly vaginal discharge
- Pain in the pelvic region
- Vaginal bleeding continued even after menopause
- Blood stains in vaginal discharge.
These symptoms can, however, be related to some other diseases and not necessarily be of cervical cancer. Yet, no matter what it is associated with, as you find these symptoms, you must not delay in having the cause diagnosed and start the treatment as early as possible.
Causes and Risk Factors of Cervical Cancer:
- Cervical Cancer Caused Due by Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) – The main cause of cervical cancer is of course the HPV virus. There are more than 100 types of the HPV and they are the main cause of the two types of cervical cancer – the adenocarcinoma and the squamous cell cancer. Amongst these 100 types of HPV, two types i.e. the type 16 and type 18, are the cause of 70% of the cervical cancers. This virus comes into contact through sexual intercourse.
- Cervical Cancer Caused Due to Smoking – Research has proven that smoking can be a significant risk factor for women to develop cervical cancer. This is because a cancer causing chemical (benzyrene) is emitted from the cigarettes and is found in the lining of the cervix. They damage or limit the function of the Langerhans cells that fight against different diseases. Hence, for smokers, the HPV infection is usually neither prevented nor cured and as a result leads to cancer.
- Circumcision a Factor in the Cause of Cervical Cancer - According to some research, women who have sex partners who are circumcised are less likely to develop cervical cancer. Those, with partners without circumcision, will be at high risk of acquiring the HPV.
- Multiple Sex Partners as a Cause for Cervical Cancer- Having multiple sex partners would increase the risk of developing this disease, since the more partners you have sex with, the higher you are at risk of developing cervical cancer. However, it does not mean that those, who have developed cervical cancer, are promiscuous. Those, who have a single sex partner, but the partner have had multiple sex partners, are also at high risk of this disease.
- Genes - Those, who have first degree women relatives like sister, mother or daughter with cervical cancer, are at high risk of developing cervical cancer.
- Use of Contraceptive Pills as a Cause of Cervical Cancer- Prolonged use of the contraceptive pills and giving birth to too many children are also considered to be high risk factors for developing cervical cancer.
- Immune system - Women with a weak immune system, who have been suffering from HIV, taking steroids for long time or have gone through an organ transplant, are more likely to develop this disease. Even if your mother has been taking DES pills, when you were in the womb, you will grow a weak immune system and as a result, may develop cervical cancer.
Stages of Cervical Cancer and Its Cure:
Diagnosing the stage of cervical cancer is important, since it determines where to start the treatment from. There are four different stages of developing cervical cancer and they are –
Stage 1 of Cervical Cancer and its Cure:
When the cancer is just in the neck of the womb, it is the stage 1 of cervical cancer. Usually surgery, radiotherapy and also chemotherapy are offered as treatment for stage 1 cervical cancer.
Stage 2 of Cervical Cancer and its Cure:
When the cancer spreads out of the neck of the womb and reaches the surrounding tissue, it is called the stage 2 cervical cancer. Here also, a combination of surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy is offered as treatment.
Stage 3 of Cervical Cancer and its Cure:
When the cancer spreads throughout the cervix as well as the entire pelvic structure and goes down to the ligaments that line the pelvis and the lower part of the vagina and the muscles, it is known as the stage 3 cervical cancer. Surgery cannot help at this stage of cervical cancer and only radiotherapy and chemotherapy are offered.
Stage 4 of Cervical Cancer and its Cure:
When the cancer spreads out to the other body parts other than the cervix and womb, like the bladder or rectum, as well as to the lungs, it is the stage 4 or the advanced stage of cervical cancer. In this stage, surgery is done to eliminate those parts, that can stop the cancer from spreading further and also chemotherapy and radiotherapy are done.
Epidemiology, Survival Rate and Prognosis of Cervical Cancer:
The fourth most common cause of cancer and deaths in women worldwide is cervical cancer. Approximately 510,000 new cases of cervical cancer are registered annually worldwide, with a registered 288,000 deaths. 80% of the cases of cervical cancer occur in developing countries.
During each stage of treatment of cervical cancer, there are different survival rates. Although cervical cancer is a common cancer type, 93% to 80% patients have survived the '5 year survival' stage and more after being cured in the stage 1 of cervical cancer. 63% to 58% patients have survived after being cured at stage 2 of cervical cancer and 35% to 32% have survived the stage 3 cervical cancer after treatment. In the last stage of cervical cancer, the survival rate is quite low, with only 16% to 15% patients surviving the '5 year survival' stage. However, there is a chance of 100% survival for women with microscopic forms of cervical cancer. It is imperative that the stage of cervical cancer is properly diagnosed and the treatment is started instantly without delay for its proper cure.
Treatment of Cervical Cancer:
- Surgery to Treat Cervical Cancer- In case of stage 1 and stage 2 cervical cancers, surgery is an option to cure the disease. Removing the cervix and uterus, the fallopian tubes, part of the vagina or the ovaries, as well as the lymph nodes surrounding the area where the tumour has developed, can lead to a possibility that the cervical cancer would not spread.
- Radiation Therapy Treatment for Cervical Cancer– To cure the cancerous cells, rather to destroy them, high frequency radioactive rays are sent to the pelvic region either from outside, or from inside. In a session of a few minutes, radioactive rays are sent to the cancer region from outside the body. In case of sending radioactive rays from inside the body, a cylinder filled with radioactive substances is inserted into the vagina and the rays are sent for a few minutes. This mode of treatment has a significant amount of side effects.
- Chemotherapy to Treat Cervical Cancer– Some drugs are taken orally and can be taken at home and some drugs are inserted right into the veins and are given in the hospital or clinics. In this process, the fast growing cancer cells are destroyed by the drug, but as a threatening side effect, it can also destroy the healthy cells that grow and divide fast, such as the blood cells, cells in the hair root and cells in the line of the digestive tract. Hence, weakness due to blood cell damage, hair loss, nausea, vomiting, poor appetite and diarrhoea are common side effects. In most cases, chemotherapy is given along with radiation therapy.
Prevention of Cervical Cancer:
The positive aspect of cervical cancer is that it can be prevented well, unlike the most other kinds of cancers. Since it is caused by the HPV, a vaccination may ensure that this virus does not cause the cancer in the later times.
HPV Vaccination to Prevent Cervical Cancer:
Cervical cancer vaccine is highly recommended for girls as well as boys within the age group of 11 to 12. The Food and the Drug Administration (FDA) has approved two HPV vaccines and they are Cervarix, for girls only and Gardasil, for both girls and boys. If these vaccines are given to them before they are exposed to the virus, it can significantly prevent most cases of cervical cancer.
Using Condom as a Measure to Prevent Cervical Cancer:
Condoms can make sure that you do not get exposed to the HPV virus during sex. However, it cannot be possible for couples, who are planning for a baby.
Coping With Cervical Cancer:
First of all, those, who are worried about the possibility of growing cervical cancer, must know that the cause of the disease, HPV is a virus that every woman at some point in her life will develop. In most cases, they disappear on their own. But, those for whom the virus does not disappear, it can develop into a cancer. The good news here is that it takes a long time to develop the disease, probably 10 to 20 years of the infection. Hence, there is enough time to undergo a Smear test to check for the presence of pre-cancer cells or cancer cells. Those, who go through this test in every two to three years, are at a high chance of being diagnosed right at the beginning of the disease and be treated properly, with a high survival rate for cervical cancer.
Coping with the news that you have developed cervical cancer might be difficult in the very first place. However, if you are diagnosed with cervical cancer at the very early stage, there is enough reason to be happy about the fact that you are still getting a lot of chance to treat the disease and live a normal life. However, those, who are diagnosed with cervical cancer at a later stage, can have a palliative treatment and also a psychological support system to deal with this.
The next most important and practical factor to cope with is a disturbed sexual life for cervical cancer patient. Your sexual life might undergo a radical change and in that case, you will have to take the advice of a medical expert to cope with this. However, when you are having the treatment, especially the radiation therapy for cervical cancer, you will have to wait for a week or so, to let your body heal from the damage from the rays. After that you can have normal sex life. There is a string fear and misconception that sex will worsen your cancer, but that is not the fact and you will also not pass the cancer to your partner, since cervical cancer is not infectious. The HPV although is and you may pass that on to your partner. Yet, you must understand that not every person with HPV will have cancer.
Along with other emotional issues, the financial issues must also be considered as an important factor to cope with. Treatments are expensive and elaborate, as they continue to go on for a long time. It is better to cope with this problem soon.
Cervical cancer is a common disease and many women have had it and are having it. They are still surviving with much believe in themselves and the treatment. Hence, there is enough reason to think that you are not the only one and also not consider it as the end of the world. Get your kids vaccinated with the HPV vaccines to make sure that they do not grow this disease.