It could be you, it could be her: What you need to know about cervical cancer
INQUIRER.net BrandRoom / 01:50 PM June 30, 2021
Everyone has someone they consider an important woman in their lives: a mother, a sister, a daughter, a loved one, or a friend. At one point in these women’s lives, they could be at risk of cervical cancer.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC-USA), cervical cancer is mainly caused by a long-lasting infection with certain types of the human papillomavirus (HPV), occurring more often in women aged 30 and up. HPV is a common, sexually-transmitted virus; so common, in fact, that half of sexually active people will get HPV at some point.
In 2020, the Global Cancer Observatory recorded over 7000 new diagnoses of cervical cancer in Filipino women. Of that number, over 4000 women succumbed to the disease.
Each woman lost to this vaccine-preventable cancer type is one too many. The time to act more fiercely than ever against cervical cancer is now.
A close up on cervical cancer
“It is important that women should know about cervical cancer so that it may be prevented, and women’s lives may be saved,” Dr. Cecilia Llave MD, PhD of the UP-PGH NIH Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and a Trustee Director of the Cervical Cancer Prevention Network (CECAP), said in a recent interview. “Men, children, and the woman’s family should also be educated, so they can share with the women in their lives.”
Cervical cancer in its earlier stages may not show signs and symptoms, or start with post-coital bleed of vaginal discharge, but in its later stages, may include profuse bleeding, urinary and gastrointestinal symptoms. Additionally, Dr. Llave stated that “18% of late stages do not have signs and symptoms at all, and… profuse bleeding, pain, urinary and gastrointestinal symptoms may already be a sign that it’s too late.” The best thing to do is to go for regular screening even when one is feeling well.
The World Health Organization (WHO) emphasizes that there is a greater chance of surviving cervical cancer if it is detected and diagnosed early, and if high-quality treatment is afforded by the patient. “WHO recommends screening for women ages 30 to 49 years old,” Dr. Llave mentioned. Here in the Philippines, Phil health encourages screening for Filipino women as early as ages 25 to 55 years old.
Early screening for early detection, high chances of survival
When women are screened early for cervical cancer, the chances of survival become significant. “Screening picks up early cancer, even in asymptomatic women,” Dr. Llave shared. “Early stages have a survival rate of 85 to 93%, while late stages (IV) have only a 15% survival rate. Cancer may be curable if diagnosed early, more so if caught at its premalignant stages.”
The screening test typically available for cervical cancer include Pap smears (which look for precancers or cervical cell changes that could potentially become cancer), and the HPV DNA test. Women can undergo these tests as early as 21 years old. According to Dr Llave, in the Philippines, PhilHealth supports free Visual Inspection with Acetic Acid (VIA) tests for 25-55-year- olds. “VIA is recommended every 5 years, while Pap smear is done every 3 years. WHO pushes HPV DNA test every 3 to 5 years at 30 to 49 years old as a public health strategy,” she adds.
Another important preventive measure is the HPV Vaccine, which is recommended for 9 to 14 – year-olds, before they have been exposed to HPV. “Cervical cancer is not hereditary,” Dr. Llave reminded. “99.7% of the time the cancer is due to persistent chronic HPV infection that can grow to cancer in 5 to 15 years or more.”
Lifestyle changes such as practicing safe, responsible, and hygienic sex, and avoiding smoking, will contribute to better prevention against the disease.
“For those in the later stages of cervical cancer, treatments are available in the Philippines. Surgery is mostly done for early stages of the disease while chemoradiation is recommended for the late-stage detection. A surgery can be followed by chemoradiation, or even immunotherapy, if indicated. Continuous monitoring for the cancer patient should be sustained to watch out for recurrence,” as per Dr. Llave.
Education plays an important role in disease awareness and prevention. Proper and systematized dissemination of accurate information about cervical cancer can help women, their caregivers and loved ones fight against the disease. “Community education is a must. Go to them and educate them about cervical cancer and why it matters to us women,” Dr. Llave suggests.
Hope for cervical cancer patients
Getting educated, getting screened early, asking a doctor about the risk or possibility of cervical cancer, raising awareness on free screening options in Local Government Units (LGU), and advocating for better access to quality cancer treatment options, contribute to a cervical cancer- free Philippines.
Acceptance of this disease and making the most of one’s life is the best attitude. Prayers and spirituality offer a lot of healing and feeling good.
Advocacies like MSD’s Hope from Within help recognize and support women’s critical and vital role in society by promoting awareness and providing useful information on the cancer patient’s journey, for easier navigation for both patient and caregiver.