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Cervical cancer usually grows slowly. It can take several years for the malignancy to develop after precancerous changes start occurring in the cervix. This provides an opportunity for early detection if women undergo regular screening.
It may, however, grow faster in women with a weakened immune system, like those with HIV. It is the most common cancer among women living with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
It is also one of the most preventable forms of cancer. Women’s chances of developing cervical cancer can be significantly lowered if they are vaccinated and regularly screened.
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Here are four ways that women can lower their risk of cervical cancer:
The HPV vaccine protects against HPV types that cause cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers. According to research, HPV vaccines are highly effective when they are administered before first exposure to the virus or before people start to engage in sexual activity.
“Even those who are vaccinated must go for screening later on. They shouldn’t just omit their screening, and they should prevent the high risk factors,” says Dr. Rama Joshi, gynae oncologist and director- gynaecology oncology, Fortis Memorial Research Institute, Gurugram.
The vaccine offers protection against:
- HPV types 16 and 18 — the two types of HPV that account for about 80% of cervical cancer cases.
- HPV types 6 and 11 — the types responsible for almost 90% cases of genital warts.
- HPV types 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58 — the types that can cause cancer of the cervix, anus, penis, vulva, or the throat.
Who should get it?
- HPV vaccination is recommended for preteens aged 11-12 years; it can be given starting at age 9.
- It is recommended for everyone upto 26 years old, if they are not vaccinated already.
- Unvaccinated women between the age of 27 to 45 years can get the vaccine after consulting their doctor. It provides protection against HPV strains that they aren’t yet exposed to.
The following tests help in prevention and early detection of cervical cancer:
A Pap test is to look for precancers and cell changes on the cervix that may become cervical cancer if left untreated. A pap test or a pap smear involves collecting cells from your cervix, the lower narrow end of the uterus that connects to the vagina. During the pap test, the doctor or a healthcare provider places a speculum in the vagina to open it and gently scrapes cells from the cervix area. These cells are then sent to a lab. If the results are not normal, the doctor may recommend more tests and remove some tissue from the cervix for a biopsy in order to identify any cancerous cells and treat them to prevent them from becoming cancerous.
The HPV test looks for infection by high-risk HPV which may cause cervical pre-cancers and cancers. Sometimes the doctor may recommend it together with a pap smear (co-test). The pap and the HPV test are conducted in the same way. In an HPV test as well, a doctor or a health professional uses a special tool to gently scrape or brush the cervix to collect cells which are tested.
When should I get screened
21-29 years old
If your Pap test result is normal, your doctor may recommend that you wait three years until the next one.
30-65 years old
Ask your doctor which one of the three options work for you:
Pap smear: If your results are normal, the doctor may recommend that you wait for three years for the next one.
HPV test: If your result is normal, your doctor may recommend that you wait five years until the next one.
Co-testing: If both results are normal, your doctor may recommend that you wait five years for the next screening.
Women over 65 years may not need screening if their screening has shown normal results for several years and if they have had their cervix removed in a total hysterectomy for a non-cancerous condition.
Practice safe sex
HPV is mainly spread during direct skin-to-skin contact during vaginal, oral, or anal sex. It can also spread when the infected person has no symptoms. People can get HPV even if they have sex with just one person. This is why using condoms can offer protection against an HPV infection. However, it may still be on skin that is not covered by condoms. People should keep the condoms on from start to finish while engaging in sex. Condoms don’t guarantee that someone won’t get the HPV infection but it lowers the risk.
Research has shown that consistent condom usage protects people against HPV infections and cervical neoplasia (when abnormal cells are found on the surface of the cervix, which are not cancer but may become cancer and spread.)
Cigarette smoking has been linked to an increased risk of cervical cancer. Research shows that while HPV infection is the main risk factor for cervical cancer, it doesn’t always lead to cancer. Nicotine plays an important role in cervical carcinogenesis, or the process by which normal, healthy cells transform into cancer cells.
- Cervical cancer and HIV—two diseases, one response, UNAIDS
- Centres for Disease Control and Prevention
- “The power of science”: HPV vaccine proven to dramatically reduce cervical cancer, Cancer Research UK, 2021
- Planned Parenthood
- American Cancer Society
- National Cancer Institute
- Nicotine Promotes Human Papillomavirus (HPV)-Immortalized Cervical Epithelial Cells (H8) Proliferation by Activating RPS27a-Mdm2-P53 Pathway In Vitro