Cervical Cancer Awareness
As we approach the end of Cervical Cancer Awareness Month let’s have a closer look at this type of cancer.
According to the World Health Organisation, cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women, but with effective screening methods its incidence is falling.
What is Cancer?
Healthy cells in our body know when to divide and when to stop dividing. But if genes controlling this process become damaged, cells start to reproduce in an uncontrolled manner forming a tumour.
In a healthy body, such cells are identified and destroyed by the immune system. If the immune system function is impaired or the rogue cells too numerous, then cancer will develop.
Cervical Cancer and HPV
The cervix is the lower third of the vagina connecting the uterus with the vagina.
Cervical cancer is closely related to a virus, the human papillomavirus or HPV. This virus is transmitted by sexual intercourse and oral sex. Infection with the HPV virus is the most common viral infection of the reproductive tract. It does not always lead to cancer, but certain strains of the virus may be able to adversely affect the genetic material of the cells in the cervix. This then directs the cells to behave abnormally, leading to cancer.
There are over one hundred types of HPV virus, with some strains posing a higher risk than others.
It’s estimated HPV infection is the cause of 99% of cervical cancer cases. Unprotected sex and having multiple partners increases the risk of being infected with HPV, although it’s possible to contract the virus even if you’ve only had one partner.
Many infections with HPV occur early in our sexual life. In a healthy body, the majority of these resolve on their own. However, some infections do persist, leading to pre-cancerous changes in the cells of the cervix, or cervical dysplasia. These changes may disappear in time or eventually progress to cancer. Most cases of persistent HPV infection are symptomless.
People whose immune system is compromised have a higher likelihood of developing cervical cancer if they are exposed to HPV, as are those women who are also infected with other sexually transmitted diseases such as herpes and chlamydia.
Some strains of HPV cause genital warts, but these are rarely connected with cancer development.
Symptoms of Cervical Cancer
In its early stages, it’s rare for cervical cancer to cause any symptoms. As the cancer progressive the following symptoms may occur:
- Heavier and longer periods than usual
- Vaginal bleeding between periods, after sex or during a pelvic examination.
- Bleeding after menopause
- Pain during sex or pelvic pain at other times
Diagnosis of Cervical Cancer
The majority of cancers have a very short precursor stage or none at all, which means they are often not detected until symptoms are experienced. With cervical cancer, the precursor stage may last many years, which provides a good opportunity for detection at an early stage.
There are two types of tests commonly used in connection with the early detection of cervical cancer risk. The traditional screening test, commonly known as a Pap smear, examines a sample of cells from the cervix for abnormalities. Another test detects the presence of the HPV virus by looking for its DNA.
A UK-wide vaccination programme for girls aims to prevent HPV being contracted in the first place. The vaccination protects against viral strains most commonly connected with cervical cancer. It’s still recommended for women who have received the HPV vaccine to have regular Pap smear tests, because the vaccine doesn’t protect against all strains of the HPV virus capable of causing cervical cancer.
We know women who smoke have a higher risk of developing cervical cancer, possibly because tobacco by-products found in cervical mucus can cause free radical damage to the DNA of cells. Also at risk are women who don’t consume many fruit and vegetables, which contain protective antioxidants.
On the other hand, cervical dysplasia has been linked to a low intake of certain B vitamins including Vitamins B1, B2, B6 and folate as well as Vitamin A, while low levels of folate and vitamin B12 are linked to increased susceptibility to HPV infection.
Functional Medicine and Cervical Cancer
Functional Medicine views cancer prevention as reducing our exposure to those substances able to damage cells’ DNA while supporting the immune system to prevent the likelihood of rogue cells multiplying out of control.
A Functional Medicine consultation can help pinpoint deficiencies in essential nutrients and offer support with healthy lifestyle and nutritional choices to reduce cancer risk as well as to complement conventional treatment for those suffering from cancer. It’s also recommended to have regular HPV tests and Pap smears to enable any changes to be detected at an early stage.
Jo Gamble has undertaken an Integrative Medicine Fellowship in integrative cancer care. For more information, contact Jo here.