Prevention and early detection are key to beating cervical cancer. Here’s what every woman needs to know.
Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer diagnosed in South African women, which means that one in 39 will be diagnosed with cervical cancer. These are sobering statistics, but there is some good news - cervical cancer is largely preventable and treatable.
If the cancer is detected early, the five-year survival rate goes up to 91%.
Two types of human papillomavirus (HPV) cause 70% of cervical cancers. They are transmitted by sexual contact.
Cervical cancer can be detected with a Pap smear, which involves gently scraping away some cells from the cervix and then testing them for irregularities. The test can pick up cancer or precancerous abnormalities that can then be treated, with a high success rate. The earlier the cancer is detected, the higher the chances of being successfully treated.
The Cancer Association of South Africa (Cansa) recommends that women should start having Pap smears two years after they become sexually active, and continue to have them every three years after that. Regardless of whether they have had sex, all women should start having Pap smears after age 25.
Cansa offers Pap smears at its Mobile Health Clinics and Cansa Care Centres around the country. A gynaecologist, GP or health clinic can also do Pap smears.
If precancerous cells are detected, the following treatments may be used to destroy or remove them:
- Laser surgery
- Electrocauterisation (burning away with electricity)
- Cryosurgery (freezing)
- Hysterectomy (the removal of the uterus) if the irregular cells recur and the patient does not want to have children
If cancerous cells are detected, a combination of the following will be used:
- Radiation therapy
In the United States, the five-year survival rates for white women with cervical cancer are 69% and for black women with the same cancer, 57%. However, if the cancer is detected early, the five-year survival rate goes up to 91%. Specific statistics are not available for South Africa, but the stats from America show why it is vital to go for regular Pap smears.
Of course, prevention is better than cure! By preventing HPV infection, we dramatically reduce cervical cancer rates. Just over ten years ago, the first HPV vaccination was released onto the American market. Since then, countries around the world, including South Africa, have incorporated this life-saving vaccination into their immunisation schedule. In South Africa, government schools offer the vaccination to girls who are nine years old. Private school children have to visit a clinic to get immunised.
Scientists from the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in the United States last year showed that in the ten years that the vaccination had been available in that country, it had brought down the prevalence of cervical cancer by 64% in girls aged 14 to 19 years, and by 34% among those aged 20 to 24 years.
You should know: The vaccination is safe and mostly effective, however because it is not 100% effective and because it is possible to develop cervical cancer from causes other than HPV, women should still stick to the regular Pap smear schedule.
Cervical cancer is among the most treatable of cancers if it is detected early. And the HPV vaccination is playing its part in significantly reducing the incidences of cancer worldwide. It is possible to win the fight against this form of cancer, and we are already making great strides.