The word "cancer" is scary. But thankfully, there are several options out there to help prevent it. The goal of the following information is to give you the proper tools to reduce your chances of developing cervical cancer.
The cervix and its secrets
The female body is gifted with the extraordinary ability to give life. But with this great power and privilege come a certain number of challenges: menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, menopause. Since the dawn of time, the female body has been studied to understand all of its subtleties, and to try, in various ways, to maintain its health.
A woman’s reproductive system is very intimate and personal. The cervix is the protruding part that links the uterus to the woman’s vagina. It features a small opening for menstrual blood to flow through and for a baby to pass during childbirth. Unless an anomaly has been observed, women usually don’t spend too much time on the health of their cervix, but the consequences of diseases that are associated with it can be quite serious. Such is the case for cervical cancer.
What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is caused by a viral infection known as human papilloma virus (or HPV). To this day, almost 120 different types of HPV have been identified. “Low-risk” HPV can cause, among other things, genital warts (condyloma) or plantar warts. High-risk HPV, for its part, can cause pre-cancerous lesions and, possibly, cervical cancer. Not all women who present this type of lesion will get cancer, though. However, in women between the ages of 20 and 44, cervical cancer is the second-most common cancer.
How to prevent cervical cancer
The Papanicolaou test (Pap smear)
If you are 21 years old or over and sexually active, you should ask your doctor for a Pap smear. It is a simple, quick test that can be done in a clinic; the doctor simply takes a sample of cells from the cervix. The sample is then sent to a laboratory and examined under a microscope. This allows to detect changes in cervical cells that can lead to cancer over a period of several years. You should have a Pap smear every one to three years, depending on previous results and your doctor’s opinion. It only takes a few minutes and could save your life. If your Pap test comes back positive, don’t panic! There are several options available to you. Your doctor will closely follow the lesions and determine the best treatment plan for you: colposcopy, surgery or other.
These days, there are vaccines designed to prevent cervical cancer. These vaccines specifically target the types of HPV that most often cause this cancer, and are for girls and women between the ages of 9 and 45. In no case do they replace the need for a regular Pap smear, however. Recent data shows that these vaccines can be effective even after a woman has started being sexually active. A person can be infected several times in her life with different types of HPV; the body does not “remember” having previously been infected and does not develop permanent immunity (protection). That is why it is possible to offer these vaccines to a higher number of women than what was previously thought.
It is believed that wide-scale use of these vaccines in the female population would significantly reduce the incidence of cervical cancer. Ask your health professional if such a vaccine might be appropriate for you or for your daughter.
As a specialist in the field of medication, your pharmacist is in a great position to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of vaccines with you, and tell you more about all of their aspects. Ask her or him to help you make the right decision.
Other prevention measures
Because HPV spreads through sexual contact, the only way to completely avoid it is to not have any sexual relations. This, however, is not exactly realistic. But here are a few recommendations that may limit your exposure to HPV and lower your chances of getting cancer:
- Use a condom every time you have sexual intercourse.
- Limit the number of sexual partners you have.
- Try to have a monogamous relationship with someone who has had the least possible number of sexual partners.
Who is at risk of getting cervical cancer?
HPV does not care about the age, sexual orientation or origin of the woman it affects; any woman who is sexually active (with a man or a woman) is at risk of developing cervical cancer. You may be more at risk, however, if you:
- became sexually active at a young age;
- have had several partners, or one who has had several partners himself/herself;
- used oral contraceptives (the Pill) for over 10 years;
- don’t have regular Pap smears;
- have a weak immune system;
- have had several full-term pregnancies (seven or more).
When should you see a doctor?
Certain signs and symptoms could indicate the presence of cervical cancer, such as:
- whitish discharge or significant vaginal discharge;
- bleeding between periods;
- menstrual bleeding that is heavier than usual;
- pain during sexual intercourse;
- bleeding after sexual intercourse;
- bleeding after menopause.
If you notice one or several of these symptoms, or any other unusual symptom, see your doctor. She or he will examine you and may have you take some tests to properly diagnose the condition.
If you do have cervical cancer, your doctor and an entire team of health professionals will guide and help you through every step of the treatment process.
Contrary to many other types of cancer, cervical cancer is one that can actually be prevented. So why not make cervical health one of your priorities? Discuss it with your pharmacist and your doctor, who will be happy to give you more information. Because in this situation, as it is for many others, prevention is by far the very best option!