Beware of the virus

Dr Mohita Goyal
Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Sexually active females are more prone to cervical cancer. Here’s more about it...

Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer globally. Primary risk factor is human papilloma virus. Commonly misunderstood as cancer of the cervical spine, this cancer develops in females at the entrance to the womb from the vagina, the cervix. Although the condition was earlier common in women above 30 years of age, nowadays, a sharp rise in the incidence of the condition is being seen in women in the second decade of their life. Cervical cancer occurs in sexually active women between 30-45 years of age. However, with more number of young girls being sexually active at an early age, the risk of acquiring the condition increases.
Human papillloma virus is known to be transmitted from one person to another during sexual intercourse. This does not mean that every sexually active woman will acquire cervical cancer.

The reason behind this is that several harmless strains of HPV exist, which do not cause cervical cancer. Commonly HPV-16 and HPV-18 are known to cause the disease. 

As with most health conditions, immunosuppression is associated with an increased risk of contracting the disease. Moreover, personal hygiene plays an important role in prevention of the condition. 

Early stages of the disease often do not present with any symptoms. Abnormal vaginal bleeding, during or after sexual intercourse, in between the menstrual cycle, or post menopause (in older women) are the common symptoms of cervical cancer in the advanced stages of the condition.

The chief aspect of cervical cancer, as with many others, is that the condition is highly preventable due to availability of screening tests and vaccination to prevent HPV infection.

Cervical cancer is one of the most successfully treatable conditions and early diagnosis is associated with definitive treatment and improved prognosis. Long survival times and good quality of life is possible when treatment is initiated promptly. 

Screening tests for cervical cancer, namely Pap smear and HPV test must be advised in every young woman above the age of 20 years and must be repeated at least once in 3-5 years, especially if the woman is sexually active.

Transmission of the virus is possible through skin-to-skin contact; therefore unprotected intercourse is not advisable. Avoiding multiple partners is also important to reduce the risk of acquiring the condition. In cases of known HPV infection, professional advice must be taken prior to planning pregnancy. Prevention is possible through HPV vaccination which is routinely advised in some countries, to girls aged between 12 and 13 years. Primary level education regarding the condition (in schools) must be planned to create awareness.

Cervical cancer can be treated by surgery, if detected at an early stage. Hysterectomy may be advised in certain cases. Chemotherapy and radiation are advised in advanced stages of the cancer or in combination with surgery for more definitive outcomes.

The writer is a Gynecologist at Motherhood Hospital, Pune

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