Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, which takes place annually in September, encourages women to be screened regularly so that abnormal cells can be detected and treated early.
Cervical cancer is the second leading cause of female cancer in South Africa, with one in every 42 women being diagnosed annually according to the Cancer Association of South Africa (Cansa).
“Almost all fatal cases of cervical cancer could be avoided, as long as women are screened regularly and preventative treatment is started early in the diagnosis,” said Dr. Howard Manyonga, obstetrician and head of The Birthing Team, an affordable maternity programme available in Pretoria, Durban, Polokwane, and Johannesburg.
A pap smear is the most effective screening for cervical cancer. A sample of the cervical lining is taken by a professional nurse or doctor and tested to determine whether abnormal cells are present.
This should be done 10 to 20 days after the start of a woman’s last period. Every woman should be screened at least every three years.
Cervical cancer is a long-term complication of infection by certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV), the most common sexually transmitted disease.
“It takes 15 to 20 years for cervical cancer to develop in women with normal immune systems. It can take only five to 10 years in those with a weakened immune system, such as women with untreated HIV,” said Manyonga.
“We can prevent the spread of HPV by educating men and women on safe sex practices.
“Vaccinations against the virus for girls aged nine to 14, together with the promotion of regular screenings for those already engaged in sexual activity, should be encouraged,” said Manyonga.
Treatment of cervical cancer depends on the stage, shape, and size of the tumor, age and general health.
The symptoms of cervical cancer usually present themselves at a very late stage.
Signs include irregular intermenstrual bleeding or abnormal vaginal bleeding after sex; back, leg or pelvic pain; fatigue; weight loss; loss of appetite; vaginal discomfort or odorous discharge.
A pap smear can safely be done while pregnant.
Patients should speak to their doctor or midwife about whether they should have the test while pregnant or after the birth of their baby.
“For clear results, it is best to be screened 12 weeks after the birth of your child,” says Manyonga.