In the Philippines, 10 Filipinas die of cervical cancer every day, making it the second most common cancer affecting females, next only to breast cancer. Worldwide, 500,000 new cases and 250,000 deaths attributed to cervical cancer are reported each year. As we learn more about this illness, more and more women are becoming interested in learning what they can about it, especially if they are themselves at risk or know someone whose life has been touched by cervical cancer. We’ve seen this in the activity on our own GirlTalk forums, where there are threads devoted to discussing cervical cancer and cervical cancer vaccines.
However, this cancer is preventable and treatable, especially if diagnosed early. Here’s a quick guide on the essential things you need to know to protect yourself and your loved ones.
WHAT CAUSES CERVICAL CANCER?
Unlike other cancers whose origins or causes are unclear, the cause of cervical cancer (the cervix is the lower narrow part of the uterus or the womb) has been traced to the Human Papilloma Virus or HPV.
According to Dr. Cecilia Llave, M.D., PhD, the program director of the Cancer Institute at the University of the Philippines-PGH, “It has been found that 99.7 percent of women with cervical cancer are also positive for HPV. For a woman to have cervical cancer, she must have been consistently and persistently infected by HPV, making HPV the necessary cause of cervical cancer.”
Half of cervical cancer cases occur in women between the ages of 35 and 55.
(Photo by ssdg4773 via sxc.hu. All photos used are for illustrative purposes only.)
HOW MANY TYPES OF HPV ARE THERE?
According to Dr. Efren Domingo, secretary general of the Asia Oceania Research Organization in Genital Infections and Neoplasia and the organization’s president in the Philippines, there are over 100 different types of HPV.
“HPV is the one of the most common sexually transmitted infections. An estimated 50 percent of sexually-active people will get genital HPV infection in their lifetime. Most are relatively harmless and, in most cases, are spontaneously cleared by the body’s immune system.”
WHICH HPVS ARE HIGH-RISK AND WHICH ARE LOW-RISK?
There are, however, certain types of HPV that lead to cancer.
Says Domingo: “HPV 6 and 11 are called ‘low-risk’ types. They cause abnormal cervical changes that show up in pap smear results and cause 90 percent of genital warts.
“HPV 16 and 18 are ‘high-risk’ types and cause cervical cancer and abnormal cervical changes that sometimes lead to cancer. Seventy percent of cervical cancer cases are linked to HPV 16 and 18.”
It is estimated that 50 to 80 percent of women will acquire an HPV infection in their lifetime. Studies show that, of these, up to half will be infected with a high-risk HPV type.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF CERVICAL CANCER?
Common signs and symptoms of cervical cancer are:
- vaginal bleeding after intercourse, between periods or after menopause
- watery or bloody vaginal discharge with a foul odor
- pelvic pain during intercourse
However, some cases of HPV are asymptomatic. It is best to have routine pap tests within three years of when you begin having sex or at age 21, whichever comes first.
- Avoid smoking.
The exact linkage between smoking and cervical cancer is not yet known, but smoking increases risk of precancerous changes we as well as cancer of the cervix.
- Be faithful.
The greater your number of sex partners, the more your partner’s number of sex partners, the greater your chance of acquiring HPV.
- Practice safer sex.
Use condoms correctly and consistently and for each type of sex: anal, oral, or vaginal.
- Abstain from sex.
Even better than sticking to one sexual partner or practicing safe sex is having none at all. So if you’re of two minds about entering a casual relationship, our advice is to just say no.
- Delay first intercourse.
Having sex before the age of 18 increases your risk of HPV. Immature cells are more susceptible to pre-cancerous changes that HPV can cause.
(Photo by vancity197 via sxc.hu)
HOW DO HPV VACCINES WORK?
HPV vaccines cause the body to develop antibodies against HPV and protect it against infection. HPV vaccines have been seen to provide 70 to 80 percent protection against cervical cancers.
Cervical cancer vaccines mostly work to protect against high-risk HPVs. Basically, there are two vaccines currently available: Cervarix and Gardasil. Cervarix provides protection against the high-risk HPVs 16 and 18 and is generally cheaper than Gardasil. However, Gardasil provides protection against HPVs 6 and 11 as well as 16 and 18. For more details, please see the comparison chart below:
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT CERVICAL CANCER VACCINES:
Below are some common inquiries about getting yourself or your daughter vaccinated for cervical cancer:
What if I miss my second or third dose?
There is no need to restart the vaccine series due to missed doses. If you miss the second dose, you may get the shot as soon as you remember; you would then get your third dose after 12 weeks. If you miss the third dose, you may get the shot as soon as possible.
It is important to get all three doses to ensure maximum effectiveness.
Do we have to be screened prior to vaccination?
There is no recommended screening method for HPV prior to vaccination at the moment.
Should I still continue regular screening and testing even after I have been vaccinated?
Yes. Cervical cancer screening should still continue for women, regardless of whether or not they have been vaccinated.
For more information on cervical cancer, visit the Cervical Cancer Prevention Network (CECAP) website at www.cecaphil.org.