Most women know how to check themselves for potential signs of breast cancer, the most common cancer for South African women. But do you know the signs of cervical cancer? Cervical cancer will affect one in 41 South African women, and 8 women die every day from it. It’s time we knew more about it. In light of September being cervical cancer month, we asked Dr. Nokukhanya Khanyile to share everything we need to know about the disease.
Dr. Khanyile is a medical doctor who studied at Wits. She’s also something of an Instagram influencer, except instead of promoting Flat Tummy Tea she uses her platform to spread awareness on issues like women’s health and mental illness.
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Why is raising awareness about cervical cancer so important?
As a medical doctor, I have come to find the true power of preventative medicine – that is taking care of your health before you start to show signs of illness. Cervical cancer is one of the most common yet easily preventable and curable conditions when caught early. I feel it is my duty to help women who are potential breadwinners, primary caregivers and community builders to keep themselves healthy.
You state that for many South African families ‘cancer discussions are a no-go’. Why do you think that is?
A lot of people find that they either blame themselves or their lifestyle choices when they get cancer. And because it can sometimes take years for people to become symptomatic, they tend to try and hide the truth of their health status because of the shame and pity that they feel it may bring.
It can also be painful for loved ones to watch the condition of a family member deteriorate in front of their eyes and so the discussion is sometimes only left until late. One of the most common reasons I’ve heard is that they didn’t know what options were available and gave up prematurely due to what they’ve seen other people go through.
And how can the next generation break this cycle?
They can break this cycle by knowing the risk factors and causes of common cancers that can empower them with information to make the right choices to stay healthy. If affected by an illness, it is important to seek medical attention early in order to have access to more treatment options, some of which may be less invasive or cheaper to treat the condition they’re presented with.
The signs of cervical cancer
If you have any of these, you may have a vaginal discharge from a sexually transmitted infection or bacterial vaginosis infection, but go see your doctor if you see:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding or discomfort especially just after having sex
- Foul-smelling vaginal discharge
- Lower abdominal pain that does not improve
What does HPV have to do with cervical cancer?
There are many types of the Human Papilloma Virus. The ones implicated in causing cervical cancer are HPV-16 and HPV-18, which are responsible for over 95% of cases.
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Preventing cervical cancer
The Human Papilloma Virus vaccine can prevent cervical cancer, and also genital warts, as this virus is the main cause of cervical cancer. It costs between R700-R1000 depending on the brand you get. For men and women, the following number of vaccinations can be given:
• Age 9-14 years: 2 injections 6 months apart
• Age 15-45 years: 3 injections (after 2 then 4 months) so that you get all three in a 6-month period
Other options include avoiding unprotected sexual intercourse with multiple partners, minimising smoking and avoiding long term use of the oral contraceptive pill
You can start by getting pap smears at the age of 21 years, every 3 years between age 21-29, or every 5 years between age 30-65 with HPV testing as well.
Common myths about cervical cancer
There are a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings surrounding cervical cancer. Dr Khanyile busts some of the most common ones for us.
‘Cervical cancer is not treatable’
Not true, the earlier lesions are detected, the less invasive the management becomes. The options available are too deep for the scope of this article but may include things like:
• Surgical removal of the abnormal tissue on the cervix by either cutting it out, using laser therapy or cryotherapy which may be a day procedure and with or without anaesthetic.
• Hysterectomy or removal of the womb.
• Radiation and/or chemotherapy.
‘Getting a pap smear protects me from getting cervical cancer’
Also false, a pap smear is used to identify cells in the cervix that may appear to have cancer changes or to identify HPV infection. This just helps doctors diagnose cervical cancer early but doesn’t stop you from developing the condition
‘Men can’t get the HPV vaccine because cervical cancer only affects women’
Women usually get the infection during sexual intercourse with males infected with the HPV vaccine even though they may not show any symptoms. This is why it is important for both partners to be vaccinated, to go for regular pap smears and to use condoms during all sexual practices.
Cervical cancer in South Africa
- The month of September is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month
- According to CANSA, cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in South African women with 1 in 42 women having the risk of getting cancer in their lifetime
- According to the South African Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, one in 41 women in South Africa is affected and 8 deaths per day are due to cervical cancer
Who should you contact if you think you might have cervical cancer?
You can approach your local GP or clinic to do a pap smear and take a basic history examination with. They will then refer you on to a specialist gynaecologist who will counsel you further regarding your Pap Smear results and treatment options if there are any abnormalities noted.
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