According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), “cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer among women globally with death rates of more than 80 percent” due to late detection and treatment. In Zambia it is the most common cancer affecting more than 3,000 women yearly. BUT THERE IS HOPE! Cervical cancer is not only preventable but can be cured if caught early and adequately treated. It is one of the few cancers that can be eliminated!
WHAT CAUSES CERVICAL CANCER?
Cervical cancer is mostly caused by the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). It is a common type of virus that affects areas such as the mouth, throat and genitals, They are a group of viruses that can spread during intercourse or other skin to skin contact. Anyone who has ever had sex is at risk for HPV. Both men and women can be infected with HPV. The HPV virus can exist in the body with no symptoms and in most cases does not cause serious consequences.
HOW CAN YOU REDUCE YOUR RISK?
HPV Vaccination Of Girls (and Boys)
An HPV vaccine protects the body from HPV infection. Getting vaccinated prevents the body from developing HPV which is the main cause of cervical cancer. The vaccine in Zambia was successfully introduced in 2013 through a demonstration project. In 2019 it was integrated into the routine national vaccination program. In Zambia the vaccine is currently targeted at girls aged 14 years.
Limiting Exposure To The HPV Virus
HPV is spread through skin-to-skin contact including sexual activity. One can limit exposure to the HPV by having less sexual partners or by using condoms.
“Delayed” Sexual Activity
Avoid early age sexual relations. Having sexual activity at an early age (especially below 18) increases your exposure to HPV.
Not Inserting Foreign Substances Or Objects In Your Private Parts
Inserting substances or objects not designed for insertion in the vagina can affect the normal formation or functioning of the cells in the cervix which then increases the risk of cervical cancer.
Using condoms reduces the risk of HPV infection which often occurs through sexual contact.
Smoking increases the risk of developing cancer. By not smoking one reduces the risk of developing cervical cancer. Substances found in the body due to smoking can damage the cells in the cervix and lead to cervical cancer. The substances from smoking also make the immune system less effective in fighting HPV infection.
Going For Screening
The early stages of cervical pre-cancer or cervical cancer often cause no pain or other symptoms. That is why regular pelvic screening is important as per your health practitioner’s advice. Screening is the process where parts of the body are checked or tested for abnormal cells that are known to cause cancer. Screening helps prevent cervical cancer because any pre-cancerous or cancerous cells found in the cervix can be detected and treated before cancer develops or reaches an advanced stage.
Screening For Cervical Cancer
In Zambia, the most common screening procedure is Visual Inspection with Acetic Acid (VIA). Acetic acid is simply vinegar. During this procedure, the vinegar is applied to the cervix and the medical examiner uses a special camera or lens to see the abnormal cells. The abnormal cells stain white under vinegar.
Other Screening Methods Are:
- Visual inspection with Lugol’s solution (iodine)
- Pap smear
- HPV test.
The HPV test is quickly gaining recognition around the world as a screening method of choice.
Cervical Cancer Screening Process
The screening process is not painful in skilled hands. If the screening is by VIA, the medical examiner will insert an instrument in the vaginal in order to see the cervix. The examiner will then apply the vinegar to the cervix and check for any evidence of abnormal cells. If any abnormal cells are noted there are several methods of treating them depending on the facilities available and the extent of the lesion.
Treatment Of Pre-Cancerous Cells
Pre-cancerous cells can be destroyed and or removed before they turn cancerous. Here are some of the common treatments for pre-cancerous cervical cancer:
- CRYOTHERAPY – Cold gas treatment is applied to the cervix.
- THERMO-COAGULATION – Heat treatment is applied to the cervix.
- LOOP ELECTRO-SURGICAL EXCISION PROCEDURE (LEEP) – Use of a wire loop heated by an electric current to remove or cut off the cancerous cells and tissue.
In Zambia, FREE cervical cancer screening is offered at selected public health facilities countrywide at the district and provincial level with plans to open up more centers. The government is further scaling up its response to cancer by setting up two new cancer centers in Ndola and Livingstone in the future.
This article is part of the “NO WOMAN SHOULD DIE FROM CERVICAL CANCER: AN AWARENESS SERIES ” – an initiative of the Zambian Cancer Society. It is in commemoration of January – Cervical Cancer Awareness Month.
Article Contributors: Ellen-Banda-Aaku, Dr. Dorothy Lombe, and Udie Soko
P/s If you would like to share your experience with cervical cancer as a patient, caregiver, medical personnel, etc. please dm or call Idah on 0966 824 027 or 0976 659 914.
This series is for awareness purposes. Neither the Zambian Cancer Society nor the contributors to this guide will be responsible for any action (or lack of action) taken by any person or organization as a result, direct or indirect of information contained in or accessed through this series. For further information about cervical cancer visit your nearest health care provider.
Picture source: Pan American Health Organization