Cervical cancer is one of the most common cancers to occur amongst women. It comes close after breast cancer with respect to incidence rate. This is also one of the most preventable forms of cancer. In India, approximately 132000 new cases are diagnosed and 74000 fatalities are annually with respect to cervical cancer. This number accounts for almost 1/3rd of the global cervical cancer deaths. This is largely due to lack of awareness and routine gynecological screening. In this article, Dr Deepika Aggarwal, top gynecologist in Gurgaon explores the importance of good hygiene and vaccination for improving the prognosis of cervical cancer in the country.
Before we go further into this topic, let us understand what cervical cancer is. Cervical cancer is a form of cancer that develops in the lining of the cervix (which connects the uterus to the vagina). With time, this cancer can spread to the rest of the body (metastasis) resulting in severe complications including death.
What is unusual about cervical cancer is that most cases are attributed to an HPV infection. HPV or Human Papillomavirus is a group of viruses that can cause skin warts, genital warts amongst other skin disorders. While most strains of this virus are harmless and may even go undetected, there are a few strains considered to be high risk HPV strains of which two are responsible for more than 80% of all reported cases.
Various forms of HPV can be transmitted amongst humans by any type of sexual intercourse as well as from the skin or the mucous membrane of an infected person. Unprotected sexual intercourse, multiple sexual partners and sexual intercourse at an early age are some of the leading causes of the spread of HPV.
Keeping the vagina clean can help reduce the risk of cervical cancer amongst other infections of the vagina such as yeast infection or candidiasis. Good vaginal hygiene does not just mean keeping the area clean. It also involves maintaining good sexual hygiene. Always use condoms while engaging in sexual intercourse to minimise the risk of contracting an STD or STI such as HPV infection, HIV, chlamydia etc. Condoms do not provide 100% protection against HPV but it does reduce the risk significantly.
Cervical cancer develops gradually. The cells go through several pre-cancerous changes that can be detected through routine gynaecological check-ups and most importantly pap-smears. This will help in detecting the early signs of cervical cancer at which point of time, several preventive measures can be taken to protect oneself from this disease. Some women may also be advised to go for preventive surgeries to eliminate the risk of developing cervical cancer.
HPV vaccination offers the best protection against cervical cancer caused by HPV. Women who are sexually active are advised to get this vaccination as routine screening may not be enough protection against cervical cancer. Another fact to consider is that access to medical care is not easy for everyone in the country. While it is more convenient in urban cities, vaccines offer a much more efficient solution against cervical cancer in rural areas.