Cervical cancer is a common cancer among women in Nigeria, second only to breast cancer. West Africa recorded 31,955 new cervical cancer cases in 2018, and Nigeria accounted for almost half of it with 14,943 cases. An exact 10,403 deaths were also recorded in the country that same year from cervical cancer.
This cancer is caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) serotypes 16 and 18. It is commonly transmitted through sex, mother to child, and from contaminated hospital equipment.
Since cervical cancer affects only women, it is important for every woman to learn the risks associated with developing the cancer. In this article, we will be making a detailed list and explanation of the common risk factors. This will help you assess yourself and adjust where necessary.
To understand the risk factors for cervical cancer, let’s start from the basics.
What is the cervix
The cervix is a cylinder-shaped mass of tissue that connects the vagina and uterus. It is located at the lowermost portion of the uterus. It helps to hold the fetus in place during pregnancy and changes in shape and size during childbirth to allow passage of the baby.
What is Cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that affects the cervix. It happens when the cells on your cervix start to change to pre-cancerous cells. Not all pre-cancerous cells will develop into cancer, however, finding these cells and treating them before they can change to cancer is critical to preventing cervical cancer.
What are the risk factors for cervical cancer?
Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) infection.
This is one of the most important risk factors for cervical cancer. HPV is a group of viruses. Some of them cause a type of growth called papillomas, which are more commonly known as warts.
HPV infects cells on the surface of the skin, and those lining the genitals, anus, mouth and throat. Ot can spread through skin-to-skin contact during sexual activities such as vaginal, anal, and even oral sex. HPV causes warts on different parts of the body such as the hands, feet, lips, tongue, genital organs, and anal area.Some types of HPV are strongly linked to cancers, including cancer of the cervix, vulva, and vagina in women, penile cancer in men, and cancers of the anus, mouth, and throat in both men and women.
HPV is common and usually clears by itself. In cases where the infection does not go away, it becomes chronic and causes certain cancers, such as cervical cancer.
There is currently no cure for HPV infection, but there are ways to treat the warts and abnormal cell growth from HPV. Vaccines are also available to help prevent infection by certain types of HPV.
Hanging around people who smoke exposes you and the smoker to many cancer-causing chemicals that could affect body organs. These chemicals are absorbed through the lungs and carried into the bloodstream throughout the body.
If you smoke as a woman, your chances of developing cervical cancer are higher. This is because women who smoke have been discovered to have tobacco by-products in their cervical mucus, and it contributes to the development of cervical cancer.
High Sexual Activity
The more sex you have with different partners, the higher your risk of being exposed to HPV. It’s important to run routine health checks and STI tests if you are sexually active (either with one or multiple partners). This will help you find out about infections and treat them early.
Having a weak immune system
People with weak immune systems are at risk of many infections, and cervical cancer is one of them. Having the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is one virus that weakens the immune system. It reduces the body’s capacity to destroy cancer cells and slow their growth and spread.
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes AIDS, weakens the immune system and puts people at higher risk for HPV infections.
Another group of women at risk for cervical cancer are those taking drugs to suppress their immune response, such as those being treated for autoimmune disease (in which the immune system sees the body’s own tissues as foreign and attacks them, as it would a germ) or those who have had an organ transplant.
Chlamydia is a kind of bacteria that infects the reproductive system. It can cause pelvic inflammation, leading to infertility. Some studies have seen a higher risk of cervical cancer in women whose blood tests and cervical mucus showed evidence of past or current chlamydia infection. Certain studies show that the Chlamydia bacteria may help HPV grow and live on in the cervix which may increase the risk of cervical cancer.
Long-term use of birth control pills
There is a study that shows that taking oral contraceptives for a long time increases the risk of cancer of the cervix. The research suggests that the risk of cervical cancer goes up the longer a woman takes OCs, but the risk goes back down again after the OCs are stopped, and returns to normal many years after stopping. Women are advised to speak with their doctors before using contraceptives.
Having multiple full-term pregnancies
Women who have had 3 or more full-term pregnancies have an increased risk of developing cervical cancer. It is thought this is probably due to the increased exposure to HPV infection with sexual activity. Also, studies have pointed to hormonal changes during pregnancy as possibly making women more susceptible to HPV infection or cancer growth. Another thought is that pregnant women might have weaker immune systems, allowing for HPV infection and cancer growth.
Lack of access to health care due to poor economic conditions.
Many low-income women do not have easy access to adequate health care services, including cervical cancer screening with Pap tests and HPV tests. This means they may not get screened or treated for cervical pre-cancers.
A diet low in fruits and vegetables
It is advised to have a diet that includes greens and fruits. Women whose diets don’t include enough fruits and vegetables may be at increased risk for cervical cancer.
Exposure to Diethylstilbestrol (DES)
DES is a hormonal drug that was given to some women between 1938 and 1971 to prevent miscarriage. Women whose mothers took DES (when pregnant with them) develop clear-cell adenocarcinoma of the vagina or cervix more often than would normally be expected. These types of cancer are extremely rare in women who haven’t been exposed to DES. There is about 1 case of vaginal or cervical clear-cell adenocarcinoma in every 1,000 women whose mothers took DES during pregnancy. This means that about 99.9% of “DES daughters” do not develop these cancers.
DES-related clear cell adenocarcinoma is more common in the vagina than in the cervix. The risk appears to be greatest in women whose mothers took the drug during their first 16 weeks of pregnancy. The average age of women diagnosed with DES-related clear-cell adenocarcinoma is 19 years. Since the use of DES during pregnancy was stopped by the FDA in 1971, even the youngest DES daughters are older than 40 − past the age of highest risk. Still, there is no age cut-off when these women are felt to be safe from DES-related cancer. Doctors do not know exactly how long these women will remain at risk.
DES daughters may also be at increased risk of developing squamous cell cancers and pre-cancers of the cervix linked to HPV.
Symptoms of cervical cancer
Vaginal discharge is one of the early symptoms of cervical cancer. This discharge typically has a very unpleasant smell.
There may also be bleeding from the vagina spontaneously or after sex.
Other symptoms include;
- Blood in urine
- Vaginal discomfort or pain
How can cervical cancer be detected?
The following tests and procedures may be used to screen for cervical cancer
- HPV test
- Pap smear
- Visual inspection with acetic acid
Screening for cervical cancer helps to detect cancer early before symptoms appear. Cancer can also be treated at this stage to stop it from further developing.
What can people do to reduce their risk of developing cervical cancer?
- Delaying first sexual intercourse until the late teens or older
- Limiting the number of sexual partners
- Practicing safer sex by using condoms and dental dams
- Avoiding sexual intercourse with people who have had many partners
- Avoiding sexual intercourse with people who are infected with genital warts or who show other symptoms
- Quitting smoking
Can cervical cancer be treated?
Cervical cancer can be treated especially when detected early.
Treatment is usually surgical. Other methods of treatment include the use of radio waves, radiotherapy or medications, and chemotherapy.
What can I do now?
Get tested if you are a woman. Encourage women around you to get tested if you are a man. The tests for cervical cancer should be repeated every one or two years depending on the recommendations of your doctor. Want to get screened for cervical cancer now? Click here.
Get treated if you have any abnormal changes. If your cervical cancer screening tests show any abnormalities, then you should get treatment to avoid it developing into worse stages of cervical cancer.