Cervical Cancer And The Nigerian Womanby Dr. Deyo Famuboni
Published: January 27, 2016
Health + Wellness
Cervical cancer is one of the most common cancers among women worldwide, but it is also nearly 100% treatable if caught early. Learn what steps you can take right now to lower your risk for cervical cancer.
When we think of cancer, we often associate it with older people. But unfortunately, some cancers are common in younger women, and cervical cancer is no exception. Whilst studies suggest that cervical cancer peaks in women between the ages of 45 and 55, it is the second most common cancer in women under the age of 35.
Nigeria is one of the top 10 countries with the highest cervical cancer mortality rates. Though screening programmes exist, uptake remains extremely poor in Nigeria, where both awareness and attendance of cervical cancer screening is low. Cervical cancer is largely a preventable disease, yet it accounts for a high percentage of all gynaecological cancers in Nigeria.
What follows are some important facts about cervical cancer, including screening procedures, symptoms and preventive steps.
Screening has been shown to be an effective way of reducing the incidence of cervical cancer, so it is important that women be aware of the importance of attending regular screenings. Many women believe the procedure will be embarrassing or uncomfortable and so they put off attending, but talking your worries through with your health care professional can help to alleviate some of your fears and concerns surrounding the test.
The test, also known as a Pap test, is usually carried out every 3 years, from age 21 to age 65. It involves using a speculum (a plastic or metal appliance) to help access the cervix, which is at the top of your vagina. Using a small brush or spatula, the doctor will take cervical cell samples which will be viewed under a microscope to detect any abnormal cell changes. Depending on the findings, the human papillomavirus (HPV), which accounts for almost all cases of cervical cancer, may also be tested for.
If precancerous cells are detected early, the patient can then be treated to prevent cervical cancer from developing. Some countries now test for HPV prior to performing a Pap test or a colposcopy, a procedure in which an instrument is inserted in order to magnify the cervix so that it can be more closely examined.
Regular screening is important, as is being aware of your body and any changes you may be experiencing. Cervical cancer often has no warning signs or symptoms in the early stages; however, symptoms such as bleeding after sex, between periods or after menopause could indicate a problem with your cervix and does warrant a review. An unusual amount of discharge or bloodstained discharge are also reasons to see you doctor.
More advanced cases may present with heavy bleeding, offensive discharge, back or abdominal pain, leg swelling or even incontinence (the inability to hold urine or stools). It is crucial that you see your doctor should you have any of these symptoms in order to determine what may be causing them. Your doctor may order a pelvic exam and also utilize the speculum to examine your cervix. This examination is usually not painful and is done in a manner to ensure that you are comfortable.
Whilst one cannot completely eradicate the chances of cervical cancer, the risks can be greatly reduced by various lifestyle practices and preventive measures in addition to cervical cancer screening.
1. Practise safe sex
As cervical cancer is most often linked to the human papillomavirus (HPV), safe sex with condoms can help to protect one from contracting the virus. The virus can be transmitted in other ways, however, such as through genital skin-to-skin contact and through sex toys.
Risk also increases with the number of sexual partners a person has, as well as becoming sexually active at an early age. Having a sexually transmitted infection, HIV in particular, also increases your risk, so it is vital to have regular (yearly, at least) cervical screenings should you be HIV positive.
2. Refrain from smoking
Research has shown smoking to be directly related to both the occurrence of HPV infection and difficulties in clearing the infection, thus increasing the risk of cervical cancer. In addition, smoking is a proven carcinogen (causes cancer), so refraining from or stopping smoking is very important in maintaining your health. There are many treatments for those who want help quitting smoking; speak to your doctor or chemist for guidance regarding the best option for you.
3. Get vaccinated
Getting vaccinated against HPV can greatly reduce your risk of contracting the virus and therefore of developing cervical cancer. There are currently two types of vaccines available: Gardasil, which also protects against genital warts, and Cervarix, which only protects against the types of HPV associated with cervical cancer.
In most countries the vaccine is routinely given to girls between the ages of 12 and 13, before they become sexually active and are potentially exposed to the virus. Vaccination does not completely eradicate the chance of contracting HPV, however, so cervical cancer screening is still required.
In Nigeria, HPV vaccines are currently not routinely available as part of the immunisation programme. However, it is worth speaking to your health care professional about obtaining the vaccine, especially if you have never been sexually active or have had negative Pap and HPV test results. The vaccines have recently been reviewed by experts and are widely considered to be safe.
Cervical cancer in Nigeria appears to be on the rise, contributing to 10 percent of the total global cervical cancer burden. This further highlights the need for you to be vigilant about screening, to be on the lookout for symptoms, to decrease your potential exposure to HPV and to consider vaccinations should you be a suitable candidate.
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