Cervical cancer is one of the most common types of cancer in the world and, while strides are being made every day to combat its sometimes deadly spread, it continues to be a major health risk for women across the globe. At the early stages of cervical cancer, there are typically no symptoms, but as time passes symptoms can include abnormal vaginal bleeding, pelvic pain, and pain during sex.
1. What Causes Cervical Cancer?
Cervical cancer is caused by the human papillomavirus, or HPV, which a common sexually transmitted disease. While HPV only affects women, men can carry the virus and spread it to sexual partners. The virus is so common that as many as eighty percent of sexually active women acquire an HPV infection at some point during their life. Because HPV is prevalent, it is important for women to regularly get a pap smear in order to detect the virus before it develops into cervical cancer.
While HPV is almost always present in those who develop cervical cancer, most people exposed to the virus never develop cervical cancer. Other risk factors linking to the cancer include birth control pills, smoking, and having many sexual partners or becoming sexually active at a young age. Nonetheless, no single risk factor is as likely to lead to cervical cancer as exposure to HPV and so research and prevention continues to prioritize HPV prevention.
2. Protecting Yourself
There are currently two HPV vaccines, Gardisil and Cervarix, which lower the probability of cervical cancer by as much as 93%. Because the vaccines are given to women as young as nine years old, there was initially some public hesitance to widely adopt the vaccine, but rates are on the rise and more women are being vaccinated at a younger age every year, offering some protection before they are exposed to HPV.
While the link between cervical cancer and HPV has been widely publicized in the United States, leading to the rise of the HPV vaccine, other parts of the world are being hit harder than ever by the disease. For example, more women in South Africa die of cervical cancer than any other form of cancer and, globally, a woman loses her life to cervical cancer every two minutes.
3. Treatment and Prevention
There are varied treatments for cervical cancer across the world, with “fertility sparing therapy” (a surgery that keeps the woman’s reproductive organs healthy and functional after the procedure) increasingly common in the developed world. In those part of the world where cervical cancer is most common, however, skilled surgeons are not as accessible and radioactive treatments are often employed, with varied side effects.
While cervical cancer can be deadly, with early detection, there is a survival rate near 100% for women with only microscopic forms of cervical cancer and, with treatment, the survival rate for early stages of invasive cervical cancer is 92% and, combing all phases of the disease including the later stages, is still above 72%.
Though a study showed that in 2007 found that only 40% of American women had head of HPV and less than half of those were aware that it was a cause of cervical cancer, it is clear that awareness about the disease has exploded in recent years. The best thing we can do is to continue to spread awareness and encourage regular pap smears and, where appropriate, vaccinations against HPV. Cervical cancer may never be eradicated but, with careful monitoring and treatment at early stages, many hope to see survival rates climb ever closer to 100%.