Cervical cancer symptoms, screening and treatment
The month of January is known as Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. Here's a look at the causes and symptoms of this type of cancer and the treatment available for it
Cancer occurs in the cells of the cervix which is the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina.
Various strains of the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection, play a role in causing most of the cervical cancer cases. Sexually active women do get infected with HPV at some point in their lives. When exposed to HPV, the body's immune system typically prevents the virus from doing harm. In a small percentage of people, however, the virus survives for years in the cells of the cervix and contributes to the process that changes some cervical cells to become cancer cells.
Though an easily detectable cancer, the pre-cancerous stage of cervical cancer generally produces no signs or symptoms.
Symptoms of early stage cervical cancer may include:
- Irregular blood spotting or light bleeding after periods in women of reproductive age;
- Postmenopausal spotting or bleeding;
- Bleeding after sexual intercourse; and
- Excessive vaginal discharge, sometimes foul smelling.
As cervical cancer advances, more severe symptoms may appear including:
- Persistent back, leg and/or pelvic pain;
- Weight loss, fatigue, loss of appetite;
- Foul-smell discharge and vaginal discomfort; and
- Swelling of a single or both lower extremities.
- Other severe symptoms may arise at advanced stages, depending on which organs cancer has spread.
Women can reduce their risk of developing cervical cancer by being aware of symptoms and going for regular screening tests.
Cervical cancer screening involves trying to detect pre-cancer and cancer changes on the surface of cervix, more and more testing for HPV infection is performed. Whenever screening detects pre-cancerous lesions or a HPV infection, these can easily be treated, and cancer can be avoided.
For treatment of pre-cancer lesions, WHO recommends the use of cryotherapy or thermal ablation and Loop Electrosurgical Excision Procedure (LEEP), when available.
Because pre-cancerous lesions take many years to develop, screening is recommended for every woman aged 30 and regularly afterwards (frequency depends on the screening test used). Screening can also detect cancer at an early stage and the subsequent treatment has a high incidence for cure.
Diagnosis of cervical cancer must be made by histopathologic examination. Staging is done based on tumour size and spread of the disease within the pelvis and to distant organs.
The treatment options available are surgery, radiation therapy, systematic therapy that involves chemotherapy, immunotherapy and targeted therapy. Which of the treatment would work for a patient is determined by different factors. These include the age of the patient when diagnosed, type and stage of cancer, possible side effects of the treatment modality, and finally the preference of the patient. If any type of symptoms stated above are present, consult with your doctor immediately who can guide you further. Do note, that self-diagnosis is not possible and therefore self-medication should not be done. If you doubt something, go to a medical practitioner for consultation and treatment.
Palliative care in advanced cervical cancer is also an essential element of cancer management to relieve pain and suffering due to the disease.