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).
Women are encouraged to be screened regularly, so that abnormal cells can be detected and treated early.
“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,” says Dr Howard Manyonga, obstetrician and Head of The Birthing Team, an affordable maternity programme available in Pretoria, Durban, Polokwane and Johannesburg.
Did you know?
- Cervical cancer is a long-term complication of infection by certain types of the human papilloma virus (HPV), the most common sexually transmitted disease.
- 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.
“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,” says Manyonga.
“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,” says Manyonga.
Treatment of cervical cancer depends on the stage, shape and size of the tumour, your age and general health, but 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," says Manyonga.
A pap smear can safely be done while pregnant, and 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, advises Manyonga.
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