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Cervical Health Awareness Month: The Need To Take Cervical Health Seriously

11 min read
Published on 12 January, 2023

Cervical cancer is the fourth most frequently occurring cancer among women. In the past, many women have lost their lives to this dreadful disease. But, kudos to the advancements in the medical science field; death cases of cervical cancer have declined significantly. However, further progress is yet to come in this case.

In 2022, a prediction suggested that cervical cancer will be detected in at least 14,100 women from the United States. According to the CDC, approximately 13,000 to 14,000 women in the United States get diagnosed with cervical cancer. The number is daunting, and increased awareness is the only way to prevent it from developing.

Keeping this in mind, health organizations around the globe have marked January as Cervical Health Awareness Month. The key goal is to raise awareness about the importance of cervical health and the need to eradicate the disease.

With the same goal, we have curated this article to give you the nitty gritty about cervical cancer. This article will reveal what causes the disease, preventive measures, available treatments, and more.

This article should not be used to diagnose cervical cancer. Individuals seeking medical opinions should consult a health professional.

What color ribbon is used for cervical cancer awareness month?

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American cancer society assigns a particular set of colors to signify the different types of cancer. Teal and white are used for the cervical cancer awareness month ribbon.

What is cervical cancer?

The cervix is often referred to as the neck of the uterus. It is a tunnel-like structure that bridges the vagina and uterus. Cancer is when the cells in any part of the body experience uncontrolled growth, spreading to nearby organs. And cervical cancer occurs in the cervix, a part of the female reproductive system.

How cervical cancer develops? When the surface of the cervix gets infected by specific types of Human Papillomavirus (HPV) for an extended period, it leads to cervical cancer. But again, in some cases, despite getting infected with the cancer-causing HPV strain, you may not necessarily end up with cervical cancer.

The question of the hour here is - how does one contract this virus? The Human Papillomavirus virus spreads primarily via any form of sexual contact. Hence, the HPV infection is a sexually transmitted infection or STI.

Types of HPV strains associated with cervical cancer

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There are more than 200 strains of Human Papillomavirus out there. As mentioned above, only selected strains of this virus have the potential to cause cervical cancer. HPV strains are of two forms - low risk and high risk. The high-risk strains of this virus that are most likely to cause cancer are

  • HPV 16
  • HPV 18
  • HPV 31
  • HPV 35
  • HPV 39
  • HPV 45
  • HPV 51
  • HPV 52
  • HPV 56
  • HPV 58
  • HPV 59
  • HPV 66
  • HPV 68

Out of these, two HPV strains - 16 and 18 are known to cause most cancers.

Risk factors related to cervical cancer

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Along with exposure to the HPV virus, other risk factors make individuals more prone to developing cervical cancer. Here are some of the commonly known risk factors in this case:

  • Genetic disposition
  • HIV infection
  • Prolonged Smoking
  • Early pregnancy
  • Long-term use of birth control pills
  • Conceiving more than 3 times
  • Minimal consumption of fruits and vegetables
  • Weak immune system
  • Taking any immunosuppressive medication
  • Suffering from STIs like Chlamydia, Gonnorhea, Herpes, Syphilis

Symptoms of cervical cancer

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Most cancers don't display any symptoms at the beginning. The troubling signs only begin to appear when cancer advances. This being said, cervical cancer symptoms also don't develop initially. However, here are some of the commonly observed cervical cancer symptoms.

Early-stage symptoms of cervical cancer

  • Bleeding abnormally after sexual intercourse
  • Experiencing unusually heavy flow during period, or even after going through menopause
  • Abnormal vaginal discharge along with a bad odor
  • Vaginal discharge that may be too watery and may contain some amount of blood
  • An odd pain in the pelvis that persists for sometime
  • Pelvic pain during sexual intercourse

Advanced-stage symptoms of cervical cancer

  • Painful and reduced bowel movement and may also pass bloody stools
  • Bloody urine, which may or may not be painful
  • Unexplained pain on the back or side of the torso that lingers around
  • Swollen legs
  • A sudden increase in fatigue

As you can see, cervical cancer symptoms are very generic. It is indicative of a wide range of health issues.

On experiencing any of the above symptoms, it is very unlikely that the fear of cervical cancer will surface at the first instance. The individual may assume the issue lies somewhere else. So, consulting the designated doctor is of utmost importance to be on the safe side.

Cervical cancer diagnosis

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Diagnosis of cervical cancer involves pap tests or pap smear tests. For the test, the doctor scoops the surface of the cervix. The sample is then studied to identify cancerous or pre-cancerous cells. If you are a woman above 30, doctors may also suggest an HPV test as usual.

Be it cervical cancer or any other cancer, it does not develop overnight. Cancer grows gradually over the years without showing any significant symptoms. The cells, however, undergo changes structure-wise, leading to abnormality. These changes are identified during the pap smear test.

While we are in this section, let's learn about the brains behind this test. The name of a visionary who created the pap smear test is George Nicholas Papanicolaou. It was in 1943 when he introduced this revolutionary test.

Coming back to the topic, after studying the cervical cells, doctors will recommend a biopsy for further testing if they find any abnormal changes. If the biopsy confirms that cancer cells are present, the doctor will recommend further routine blood, urine tests, and X-ray of the urinary bladder, the lower part of the abdomen, and the rectum.

Stages of cervical cancer

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There are four stages of cervical cancer based on its advancement: stages 1, 2, 3, and 4. Here is what happens in every stage:

Stage 1 of cervical cancer

Stage 1 means cancer cells are detected in the cervical lining and have advanced deep into the cervical tissue. It is worth mentioning that the cancer cells are found only within the uterus and have not breached nearby organs or tissues. During this stage, the size of cancer remains small, ≤3 mm and ≥ 4 mm in depth.

Stage 2 of cervical cancer

Stage 2 means cancer has breached beyond the uterus but is still within the pelvic region. The size of the cancer is slightly bigger than in stage 1, ﹤4 mm or ≥4 mm in depth.

Stage 3 of cervical cancer

Stage 3 is when the cancer cells spread to the bottom part of the vagina or the pelvic area. It may also affect the functioning of the ureters, disrupting the passage of urine. This causes the kidney to swell. During this stage, the cancer, however, has not spread to the nearby organs yet.

Stage 4 of cervical cancer

Stage 4 is when the cancer infiltrates neighboring organs, such as the urinary bladder and rectum. If left untreated, cancer advances further to other body parts.

How to prevent cervical cancer?

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Preventing cervical cancer involves vaccination, screening tests, safe sex, and avoiding tobacco.

Vaccination:

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The FDA has approved 3 vaccines - Gardasil 9, Gardasil 4, and Cervarix 2, that effectively help prevent cancers related to the HPV virus. The vaccinations can be given at an early age of 9 to 11. Recently in December 2022, WHO updated its recommendations for HPV vaccines which are mentioned below,

  • Age 9 to 14 years - 1 or 2 doses
  • Age 15 to 20 years - 1 or 2 doses
  • Age 21 and above - 2 doses with a 6-month gap

Studies suggest that the effectiveness of HPV vaccines is highest if given before the onset of the first sexual activity. This is why health experts suggest that vaccines be given at a young age.

Doctors advise women over 26 years to refrain from taking the HPV vaccine. Why? Because, in most cases, women above 26 years of age have already been exposed to the virus. Hence, the efficacy of the vaccine reduces. Getting vaccinated will surely help prevent any future infections but will provide no benefit if already infected.

Screening tests:

Voluntarily going for screening tests regularly is a must to prevent cervical cancer. But how frequently should you go for screening tests? The answer varies depending on your age.

  • Age 21 upto 29 years - If you are a woman who turned 21 recently, it is the right time to visit your doctor for a screening test. And health experts recommend women upto the age of 29 should undergo the screening test every 3 years.

  • Age 30 and above - You should undergo a combination of pap test and HPV test every 5 years. Or else, you can only do the pap test every 3 years.

  • Age 65 to 70 years - If you have received normal results in your last 3 tests or for the last 20 years, in that case, you can discontinue going for any more screening.

Apart from vaccinations and screening tests, one should keep the number of sexual partners within the limit and always practice safe sex.

Cervical cancer treatments

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According to the National Cancer Institute, early detection and timely treatment of cervical cancer increase the survival rate. Good news, indeed! Below are 5 types of treatments that doctors commonly offer:

Chemotherapy

In this treatment, the patient is injected with specific drugs intravenously to destroy the cancer cells. The drugs travel via your blood circulatory system, identify the cancer cells, and kill them.

Doctors prescribe chemotherapy in multiple sessions. How often chemotherapy sessions are required depends on the type of drugs used and on the location of the cancer.

Targeted therapy

Targeted therapy is a similar but better version of chemotherapy. The drugs are designed to target and destroy cancer cells in this treatment. It also inhibits the production of proteins that control cancer growth.

Radiation therapy

In this treatment, high-energy radiation kills cancer cells. There are two types of radiation therapy - external beam radiation (the radiation is exposed to the patient externally from a source) and brachytherapy (the radiation is given internally via a metallic tube or the vaginal opening).

Immunotherapy

This treatment uses medications to help the immune system target and destroy cancer-causing cells. Some cancer cells also hold the ability to pose as healthy cells. In such cases, Immunotherapy can also identify and kill such cells.

Surgery

There are different types of surgery, and based on the cancer's progress, the respective surgical treatment is suggested. The cancerous tissue or mass is removed during surgery. Doctors recommend surgery if the cancer is in its initial stages. Hence, early detection of cancer plays a vital role here.

Now that we have given an overview of cervical cancer, here is a bit about cervical health awareness month and what events are organized to observe the occasion in the workplace.

Cervical health awareness month at the workplace

In 2020, the World Health Organization decided to launch a strategy on a global scale to make advancements in eradicating cervical cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer joined hands with WHO for this cause. Since then, the two organizations have been working together, progressing toward eliminating cervical cancer once and for all. Corporate workplaces are also now creating awareness for this cause which is a positive sight.

Also, taking initiatives to safeguard the well-being of employees in the corporate sector has become one of the onuses of employers. The hurdle here is that many women are uncomfortable discussing their reproductive health, especially at work.

For this reason, observing cervical cancer awareness month is the need of the hour in corporate and public sector offices.

How to observe this event at the workplace?

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Compile facts and statistics related to cervical health and cancer

Getting the facts right is essential to educate your employees properly. In this case, you can refer to the official website of the World Health Organization, National Cervical Cancer Coalition, and Center for Disease Control. Gather the latest data, and create engaging pamphlets. Circulate the copies in your organization as well as among your clients.

Organize an awareness talk gathering

Arrange an awareness talk event on your organization’s campus. Reach out to the nearby local medical expert who will be willing to enlighten the masses about cervical health awareness month. The person will address the issue from every corner and encourage the organization's women employees to be attentive toward cervical health.

You can also request the expert to facilitate a Question and Answer session where the employees can openly clarify their doubts about the topic. At the same time, keep some time for a private Q&A session for those who are hesitant to ask questions.

It is worth mentioning that you should invite an expert willing to have an unbiased conversation with your employees. Since this topic revolves around women’s reproductive health, many individuals, even those working in the medical field, may have a biased view. This causes them to answer negatively to any controversial question related to female health. So, choose your expert wisely to make this event successful.

Organize screening camps for the employees

Conduct a screening camp at your workplace this month and urge your employees to get tested. Not only this, pledge to hold such screening camps yearly to help your employees take the matter seriously.

Hold online campaigns on social media platforms

If you want to educate the ones who follow your organization on social media, holding online campaigns is the best way to do it. Moreover, you can organize a virtual awareness talk for remote employees.

Bottom line

Cervical cancer goes undetected until it's too late - something to worry about, isn't it? And the very nature of cervical cancer makes it more important to raise awareness about it. So, a visit to the doctor, following the preventive measures, reduces the chances of contracting this disease.

If you are an employer and want to uplift employee wellness, then arrange a cervical health awareness month campaign in your organization, and spread the word.

Frequently Asked Questions:

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How is cervical cancer caused, and how is it transmitted?

The virus Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is responsible for causing cervical cancer. The virus is commonly transmitted when someone indulges in unsafe sex at an early age.

How many types of cervical cancer are there?

There are mainly 2 types of cervical cancer - squamous cell carcinoma (develops on the outer surface of the cervix) and adenocarcinoma (develops on the inner side of the cervix).

What are the signs and symptoms of cervical cancer?

Signs of cervical cancer include painful urination containing blood, abnormal menstrual bleeding, pain in the pelvic area, increased urge to urinate, and unexplained pain during sex.

What types of screenings are done for cervical cancer, and how often should they be done?

2 types of screening tests are performed to check for cervical cancer - Pap smear test and HPV test. Health experts suggest women should start going for screening tests after the age of 21. Women of age 21 to 29 should be screened every 3 years. After turning 30, women should undergo screening every 3 or 5 years.

How effective is the treatment of cervical cancer, and what are the possible side effects?

Treatment of cervical cancer is known to have more success rate in cases of early detection. Moreover, the effectiveness of cervical cancer treatments mostly lasts life long.

The side effects of cervical cancer treatments depend upon the type of procedure. Common side effects are nausea, loss of energy, low appetite, hair loss, irritated skin, disruption in the menstrual cycle, and brittle bones.

This article is written by Supriya Singh who is a content marketer at Vantage Circle. Writing is how she keeps her creative side ignited. An avid dog lover. Loves to cook and binge watch TV shows. To get in touch, reach out to editor@vantagecircle.com

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