Getting to know more about cancer

Joanna Lee Masiku —
Cancer ribbons are the international symbol for cancer awareness and as such, January is cervical cancer awareness month depicted by a blue ribbon which every member of society is encouraged to wear.

This month, however, serves as a reminder to all women across the globe to take responsibility for their health by taking actions and measures that decrease the risk of getting cervical cancer, emphasis being given on every woman to know the symptoms associated with and what needs to be done to prevent it.

Being a woman who is also at risk of developing the disease in future, I decided to enlighten readers a bit on cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer is the cancer of the entrance of the uterus (womb) caused by the uncontrolled division of abnormal cells. In sub-Saharan Africa, it is the most commonly diagnosed cancer and leading cause of cancer death for women.

In Zimbabwe, it is the second most frequent cancer among women aged 15 to 49 years. Current estimates according to UNFPA Zimbabwe indicates that every year, 2 270 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and 1 451 die from the disease. These statistics should worry every woman of reproductive age, as all women 15 years and older are at a risk of getting this cancer.

Known causes

Infection by the human papilloma virus (HPV) has been ranked as the main cause of cervical cancer in women. Human papilloma virus is the most common viral infection of the reproductive tract and it is estimated that HPV infections cause approximately 68 000 cases of cervical cancer each year in Africa.

HPV is contracted by having sexual contact with someone who has it. It is mostly affecting younger age groups (below age 40). Early sexual activity, multiple sexual partners and exposure to other sexually transmitted infections such as HIV increases their chance of developing HPV-related cervical cancer.

Besides HPV, there are some factors that are known to increase the risk of developing cervical cancer.

These risk factors include:

◆ Having many sexual partners or becoming sexually active early,

◆ Smoking: carcinogens in tobacco are known to cause many types of cancers, including cervical cancer,

◆ Weakened immune system such as those with HIV/Aids,

◆ Long term mental stress – women who experience high levels of stress over a sustained period may be less able to fight off HPV,

◆ Giving birth at a younger age (before age 17),

◆ Several pregnancies – women who have had at least three pregnancies are more likely to develop cervical cancer compared to women who never had children,

◆ Contraceptive pill – long term use of some common contraceptive pills slightly raise a woman’s risk of developing cervical cancer,

◆ Other sexually transmitted diseases — women who become infected with clamydia, gonorrhoea or syphilis are at a higher risk,

◆ Socio-economic status – Studies in several countries have revealed that women in deprived areas have significantly high rates of cervical cancer.

Symptoms of cervical cancer

The warning signs may be different from person to person but usually at early stages of cervical cancer, people may experience no symptom at all. This is the reason why women should have regular cervical cancer screening. Thus, the most common signs and symptoms include:

◆ Bleeding between menstrual periods

◆ Bleeding after sexual intercourse

◆ Bleeding in women who are no longer of child bearing age

◆ Discomfort during sexual intercourse

◆ Smelly vaginal discharge

◆ Vaginal discharge with blood

◆ Pain on the lower abdomen

Cervical cancer screening

The earlier cervical cancer is diagnosed, the more successfully it can be treated. Regular cervical screening has been seen to save thousands of lives every year. The pap smear test is the mostly widely used screening test in Zimbabwe, followed by visual inspection of the cervix with acetic acid and cervicography (VIAC).

These screening services are available in most of the main referral hospitals, including Red Cross facilities dotted across the country.

Cervical screening does not detect cancer, it simply looks for abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix. If these abnormal cells are left untreated, some will eventually develop into cancer.

Because we only live once, women should not live a life of ignorance, it is wise to change our lifestyles accordingly by avoiding things that trigger the risk of developing this disease. Cervical cancer is a preventable disease. Therefore I urge all women to visit their nearest health facility and get screened. Men are encouraged to motivate their partners in honour of cervical cancer awareness month.

Joanna Lee Masiku is a final year student at the Harare School of Radiography doing therapy radiography. For any comments or suggestions, contact her on [email protected]

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