Cervical cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths among women in India. Yet, the stigma of having examined by a doctor puts women in India at a higher risk of being diagnosed for cervical cancer at a later stage. Only 25.3% women in urban areas and 20.7% in rural areas have their cervix examined according to the National Health and Family Survey 4 (2015-16).
What is cervical cancer?
The cervix is the lower part of the uterus that opens into the vagina. Cervical cancer occurs when abnormal cells on the cervix grow out of control.
What are the myths and misconceptions surrounding cervical cancer?
Women stay away from getting their cervix examined out of a fear that the test would be a painful one, says Dr Savitha C, head of the department, Gynecology and OBG, Vani Vilas Hospitals in Bengaluru, however says it is a simple one. “A smear of the surface would have the cells and on examination, cancer can be diagnosed,” says Dr Savitha.
Many women believe that they will not be at a risk if no one in the family was affected in the past. Many women, post completion of treatment, chose to stay away from their families. “They believe that they would transmit the disease to their partner. It is a myth,” says Dr Neelesh Reddy, consultant oncologist, Columbia Asia Hospitals, Bengaluru.
What causes cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is caused by the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). HPV infection is common and most people will be infected with HPV at some point in life. The infection typically resolves on its own. But in some cases the infection persists and leads to different types of cancer including cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis and anus. Often, it is transmitted through skin contact and unsafe sex. “Anyone married off early, exposed to early sexual intercourse or with multiple sexual partners are at a higher risk,” says Dr Savitha. Adolescents, women married underage and sex workers are at a higher risk.
What are the symptoms?
Common symptoms include:
Bleeding between menstrual cycles
Bleeding post intercourse
Foul smelling discharge from the vagina (white or red discharge)
Pain in the back extending to the legs
How is it diagnosed?
Cervical cancer is one of the few types of cancers that can be detected early, says Dr Neelesh Reddy, consultant oncologist, Columbia Asia Hospitals, Bengaluru. “There is a good five to ten years time between the onset of symptoms and the progress of the disease. Also, this cancer has evident symptoms. If diagnosed early, chances of treatment are better,” he says.
A common diagnostic technique is the pap smear test. “Like any other part of the body, even the surface of the cervix sees a replacement of the old cells with new ones. A smear of the surface would have the cells and on examination, cancer can be diagnosed,” she said.
Dr Reddy adds that the test ought to be conducted once in three years. “Ideally, it should be conducted before 21 years once or after the first sexual intercourse.”
How is cervical cancer treated?
When detected early, the tumor can be removed using surgery. In the later stages, treatment involves chemotherapy and radiotherapy.