Uterine cancer, also known as cervical cancer, is the fourth most common cancer among women worldwide. More than half a million people are diagnosed each year with this disease, which is attributed to the death of 342,000 women in 2020. Fortunately, it is not one of the most deadly cancers and cases have decreased over the last 50 years. April 26 is International Cervical Cancer Day. We tell you everything you should know about this pathology.
What is cervical cancer?
Essentially all types of cancer consist of the same thing: the uncontrolled reproduction of abnormal cells. In this particular case, the accumulation of these defective cells is found in the cervix, the connection between the uterus and the vagina. It can occur in the squamous cells of the exocervix or in the glandular cells of the endocervix.
What are the types?
There are two types of cervical cancer that are distinguished according to the cells affected. As we have explained above, this disease can develop in the squamous cells in the area of the cervix in contact with the vagina (exocervix) or in the glandular cells inside the cervix (endocervix). In less common cases, both types of cancer are manifested at the same time.
We must also point out that cancer can manifest itself in any type of cell, which means that cancer in the cervix can affect other cells of the body. Examples of this are melanomas or lymphomas, which usually manifest themselves in other parts of the body.
What are the symptoms?
It should be noted that in the early stages of cervical cancer there are no symptoms. This increases even more the importance of prevention and awareness of this disease, since by the time it can be detected it may be too late. In the more advanced stages, the vagina may bleed after menopause or sexual intercourse, suffer pelvic pain or experience changes in vaginal discharge, which becomes more watery and foul-smelling.
What are the causes?
There are 4 causes of cervical cancer:
- Depressed immune system. The immune system, in addition to protecting our body from external infectious agents, is responsible for destroying defective cells in our body. After cell replication, errors can occur in the replication of the genetic material, which can lead to mutations that can result in cancer. When we say that a person is immunosuppressed, it is because he or she has a weakened immune system and, therefore, the possibilities of eliminating the defective cells are reduced.
- Tobacco consumption. Tobacco consumption is not advisable for health for many reasons and one of them is that it facilitates the development of different types of cancer.
- Exposure to or consumption of drugs. There is a drug that was used from 1940 to 1971 to prevent miscarriages and other pregnancy-related problems. Women whose mothers were treated with this drug (diethylstilbestrol) are up to 40 times more likely to develop cervical cancer. Regardless, treatment with any immunosuppressive drugs, such as those given to transplant recipients, makes people more prone to cancer.
- Human Papilloma Virus. We have left the reason with the most weight for last, since the World Health Organization assures that more than 95% of the cases of this cervical cancer are caused by this type of virus. It is estimated that approximately 80% of the population will suffer from HPV at some point in their lives. Fortunately, 90% of the time the virus is eliminated by the body. However, when the virus persists in the body, cervical cancer can develop within about 15 years.
There are media reports that claim that having many sexual partners increases the risk of cervical cancer. This is true, yes, but very nuanced. Having sex with several different people increases the likelihood of contracting HPV or other sexually transmitted diseases that can weaken our immune system, such as HIV. At the same time, suffering from these STDs increases the risk of developing the type of cancer that concerns us, but there is no direct relationship between these two factors.
Is there a cure?
As we have mentioned on other occasions, it is very difficult to speak of a cure when it comes to cancer. The term used in these cases is that of remission, stating that a cancer is in remission when all its signs and symptoms have disappeared. These can reappear at a later date, although the chances decrease the more time elapses since remission. Therefore, there are 3 types of treatment: surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Many patients require several of these techniques for the cancer to go into remission. It is important to determine which cells of the cervix are affected and to define the stage of the disease in order to approach a treatment.
On the other hand, the HPV vaccine significantly reduces the chances of developing cervical cancer by preventing the development of this type of virus.
We must emphasize that prevention is vital to reduce the chances of having to fight the disease. On the other hand, early detection considerably increases the patient’s survival rate. For this reason, regular medical examinations and public awareness are essential to win the fight against this disease.
We hope that the incidence will continue to decrease and the survival rate will continue to increase. Today is International Cervical Cancer Day, a necessary day to raise awareness of a disease that we will beat with research, awareness and the strength and courage of the more than half a million women who are diagnosed each year.