Cervical cancer: What you need to know, do and don'ts

Cervical cancer progression./AGENCIES
Cervical cancer progression./AGENCIES

Have you been lately experiencing yeast infection or urinary tract infection? Or do you experience pelvic pain, bleeding between menstrual cycles, and painful and frequent urination?

Well, don’t brush it off - this could be cervical cancer manifesting itself at an advanced stage.

Like the other forms of cancer, cervical cancer doesn’t usually present symptoms until in later stages.

Dr Geoffrey Mutuma from Zambezi Cancer and General Hospital in South C, Nairobi, says symptoms may also include bleeding after sex and a foul-smelling discharge from the vagina.

Statistics

Data released by the World Health Organisation in September last year said cervical cancer kills the second

highest number of female cancer patients in Kenya at 5,250 deaths per year. Breast cancer leads at 5,985.

Overall, the WHO report said 90 Kenyans die from cancer daily from all forms of cancer, an equivalent of 32,900 deaths (69% of victims) per year.

Despite campaigns and efforts to win the war on cancer, the situation has worsened. There has been a near 20 per cent increase in cases diagnosed every year.

Dr Mutuma said this is partly because most patients seek treatment when it’s too late.

“Cancer of the cervix is not painful when it’s starting. Normally, people have problems when cancer has reached stage four when it cannot be treated or treatment becomes very difficult,” Mutuma said.

The country is this week observing the National Cervical Cancer awareness week. In Nairobi, free screening kicked off on January 21 and will run until January 27 at Kenyatta National Hospital, Melchizedek Hospital in Dagoretti Corner and Cancer Texas Centre.

The free screening will also be conducted at Uhuru Park on Sunday, January 27, during a Cervical Cancer Awareness Walk.

Dr Mutuma encouraged young girls and women to go for early screening. Doctors diagnose presence of cancerous cells at the cervix through a process called pap smear.

He said if detected early, all types of cancer can be cured.

“At stage one and two, the cancerous tumours can be removed through an operation but once it reaches stage three and four the only remedy is chemotherapy or radiotherapy,” Mutuma said.

He said, however, that most patients (about 75%) present themselves for treatment when the disease is in stage four. Patients rarely present themselves for treatment at stage one or two, he said.

“So the way to prevent and reduce the incidences of cancer of the cervix is through awareness and screening,” Dr Mutuma said.

Doctors recommend that women aged between 18 and 50 go for pap smears every two years while those aged between 50 and 75 years go after every four years.

What causes cervical cancer?

There is no known cause for cancer, but certain risk factors trigger various forms of the disease.

According to Dr Mutuma, the human papillomavirus (HPV) is a risk factor for cervical cancer. He said the majority of cervical cancer patients have HPV.

There are more than 200 types of HPV, but type 16 and 18 are the two most cancer-causing types.

HPV is sexually transmitted through anal, oral or vaginal sex.

Dr Mutuma cautioned women with multiple sex partners saying they put themselves at risk of developing cervical cancer as a result of HPV infection.

To detect HPV, a test similar to pap smear is done. It involves swabbing the cervix with a device that is similar to a cotton swab.

The cells are then tested for the presence of genetic material associated with HPV.

Dr Mutuma advised women and young girls to get PHV vaccine to minimize the chances of acquiring the virus.

It can be administered to girls from the ages of nine and 25.

The doctor, however, said for some unknown reasons, the uptake of HPV vaccine is very poor in Kenya.

“We have never understood why but it is very important for women to go for HPV vaccine,” he said.

Dr Weston Khisa, an Obstetrician and Gynaecologist at Kenyatta National Hospital said, because of HPV, cervical cancer is sometimes regarded as a sexually transmitted disease.

He said a man who has unprotected sex with a woman with HPV, he runs the risk of developing cancer of the penis.

“It is a rare thing but it can happen,” he said, adding that studies are underway to develop HPV vaccine for men.

“Once trials get through, then men can also have a type of HPV vaccine that is appropriate to them,” he said.