Over the last five decades, the number of women dying from cervical cancer has been drastically reduced in many developed countries. This feat was achieved with strategic planning and execution of screening programmes. As beautiful as this success story sounds, it is disturbingly absent in developing countries where this disease continues to claim thousands of women's lives yearly.
What is cervical cancer?
The cervix is the inner part of the female genital tract that connects the vagina (birth canal) and the uterus (womb). Cervical cancer is a disease in which the cells of the cervix undergo abnormal growth and is often associated with significant pain, visible growth and stigma. These cancerous cells can even spread to other organs in the body.
The primary risk factor of this disease is HPV (human papillomavirus) which is present in most men and women and is transmitted sexually. Others include early age of first sexual intercourse, multiple childbirths, unprotected sex, immune deficiency like HIV, family history, multiple sexual partners (or a partner who has multiple sexual partners) as well as smoking, alcohol intake, unhealthy diet, obesity, lack of exercise and oral birth control pills. It is thus clear that almost every woman is at risk of getting cervical cancer in her lifetime.
The good news is that early detection of changes in the cells of the cervix enables clinicians to start prompt treatment before cancer develops. This saves women from the pains of cancer and better still, death. Some of the symptoms are longer, heavier or irregular menstrual flow, bleeding after sexual intercourse or pelvic examinations, painful sex, increased vaginal discharge, pelvic and back pain, fatigue, nausea and weight loss.
Undetected and untreated cases, unfortunately, lead to death. It is therefore pertinent to be aware of these factors and symptoms and adopt lifestyle changes that reduce the risk. These changes are a healthy diet, exercise, safe sex, delayed onset of the first sexual encounter, child spacing, reduction or cessation of smoking and alcohol intake. Young women below the age of 26 can get the HPV vaccine. But even those who have been vaccinated should still be screened as there are other risk factors asides the virus.
Due to the existence of early detection and successful treatment when it is caught at this time, there is absolutely no reason for cervical to claim any woman's life. Screening makes it possible to detect early-stage cases. Because of this, it is considered by experts to be a form of secondary prevention.
What cervical cancer screening entails
Many women would like to know this before signing up for it. There are valid concerns about privacy and discomfort. In the first place, this procedure should be carried out in a safe and private environment. You can request for a female professional to carry out your test for you. Female chaperones should be present when the health care worker doing the test is male.
Screening is recommended for women over the age of twenty-one years. If you have never had sexual intercourse you may not have HPV. However, there are other risk factors and as such, you should discuss with your healthcare provider for proper assessment of your risk factors, clarification of concerns and modalities of screening.
Your healthcare provider would place a plastic (single-use) or metal (sterilized) speculum in your vagina to widen it. This helps in the examination of both the vagina and the cervix. There is usually little or no discomfort involved. Please communicate your feelings at any point to your health care provider.
Next, she will obtain some cells from the cervix and the surrounding area. These cells will then be sent for testing. The test could be a Pap smear, an HPV test or both. In some situations, a visual inspection with an agent like acetic acid (VIA) test is done.
If your test is normal, your doctor will request another in three years. If abnormal cells are discovered, she will carry out or request a biopsy to investigate further. If this shows the changes that could one day lead to cervical cancer, treatment is commenced to prevent this from occurring. This is frightening but it is better to take action at this stage than delay and allow it to become cancer. Every woman should consider regular checkups with her doctor to stay ahead of changes.
The mental health angle
Abeke Lawal, a health psychologist and founder of www.omna.ng has this to say about the cervical cancer screening and its link to mental health. Cervical cancer screening is the best method of prevention against cervical cancer, but it has been associated with various mental issues such as stress and anxiety, and it has been found that the levels of stress and anxiety experienced is proportionate to the educational status of the woman, her level of knowledge about HPV, the cervical screening process and cervical cancer.
It has often been proven in psychological settings that perception of illness influences the choice and attitude to treatment, and it is no less so with cervical cancer screening. Therefore, the better educated a woman is about HPV, cervical screening processes, cervical cancer and mental health, the less likely she is to see the screening process as a foreshadowing of doom, and the better her attitude will be towards it. The best solution, therefore, will be mass education on cervical screening and also on mental health, tailored to fit their educational statuses as well as to provide some comfort.
On a final note, self-care involves protecting yourself and availing yourself the best healthcare possible. Being healthy helps you discharge your roles and enjoy your relationships to the fullest. You will be doing yourself a big favour by making this test a part of your regular medical checkup.