Though cervical cancer is the most common gynecological cancer amongst women in India, it is one of the most easily preventable cancers. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), more than 45,000 women died of cervical cancer in 2019 in India. There is a need to generate mass awareness about the vaccination to prevent cervical cancer and the need for regular screening, said experts from Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Institute and Research Centre (RGCIRC) Delhi. The month of January is celebrated as the Cervical Cancer Awareness Month.
In case of cervical cancer, early detection if immensely possible as it has a long pre-cancerous stage of about 10 15 years, said Dr Vandana Jain, Consultant Gynae Oncology, RGCIRC.
It can be easily tested by a simple test like PAP Smear which can even detect pre-cancerous stages and thus prevent the development of cancer. For women ages 21 to 65, Pap test is generally recommended every 3 years. If the procedure is combined with HPV test, the testing interval can be increased to 5 years in women over 30 years of age, she added.
High risk human papilloma virus (HPV) is the culprit behind most of the cases of cervical cancer. Generally, when a woman is exposed to HPV, her immune system prevents the virus from doing any harm. But, in some women, the immune system may not be able to clear the virus spontaneously and prolonged persistent infection with high-risk HPV types of results in cervical cancer.
According to Dr Vandana, cervical cancer may be asymptomatic in the early-stages, and symptoms may only appear when the cancer has reached an advanced stage. “This underscores the need for regular screening to catch the cancer at an early stage,” she noted.
Abnormal menstrual flow, bleeding in-between menstruation, postcoital bleeding, post-menopausal bleeding, dirty vaginal discharge are the general symptoms of cervical cancer, said Dr Vandana
Having multiple sexual partners and onset of sexual activity at an early age are the risk factors for cervical cancer. Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV increase the risk of HPV infection. Smoking is also associated with increased risk. Owing to poor hygiene, lack of awareness and inadequate screening, the incidence of cervical cancer is higher in rural India than it is in urban India.
To reduce the risks of cervical cancer, one should get vaccinated against HPV. Girls and women ages 9 to 26 can get the HPV vaccine, but it is most effective if given to girls before they become sexually active. For those between 9-14 years of age, vaccines are given in the form of two injections and three injections are needed for those between 14 to 26 years of age.
However, Dr. Vandana noted getting vaccinated is not a substitute for screening examinations.
The vaccine offers about 70-80 per cent protection against cervical cancers. Therefore, screening remains very important for early detection and management of the cancer. However, In India, fewer than 1 in 10 women were screened for cervical cancer in 2019.