Preventing Cervical Cancer
Being told you have abnormal cells on your cervix can be extremely frightening. But it doesn’t necessarily mean you have cervical cancer – and there’s plenty you can do to prevent cervical cancer.
Around 370,000 cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed in the world each year. The main risk factor for the disease is the human papillomavirus (HPV). Anything that increases your risk of contracting this virus is itself a risk factor for cervical cancer. This includes early sexual activity (young cells may be more susceptible to the cervical damage the virus may cause) and poor immunity. In addition, smoking is a separate major risk factor because nicotine triggers damage to cervical cells.
Symptoms and diagnosis
If you experience any bleeding after intercourse, or if you have bleeding between periods and a continuous vaginal discharge, you should see your doctor right away. Ask for a Pap smear to rule out cervical dysplasia – remember that harmless cervical erosion and cervical polyps can cause bleeding between periods, too, so don’t assume the news will be bad. Your doctor will perform a colposcopy to establish whether or not you have abnormal cell growth on your cervix, and, if you do, he or she will order a biopsy to establish whether or not the cells are cancerous.
After a diagnosis of abnormal cell changes, your doctor will offer you the treatment that’s most appropriate for the extent of the abnormalities. The following aim to prevent cervical dysplasia becoming cervical cancer.
Diathermy The CIN grading that categorizes the cell changes in your cervix refers to cells on the surface of the cervical tissue. A doctor can destroy these abnormal surface cells quickly and easily suing heat (diathermy), giving you just a local anaesthetic. Although you may bleed for up to three weeks afterwards, this is a highly effective technique, and it’s unlikely that abnormal cell changes will recur. Afterwards, you should have six-monthly cervical tests, eventually spreading them out to yearly when your doctor says it’s okay to do so. Laser surgery (burning cells off with a laser) and cryosurgery (freezing them with a small probe) are also treatments for outer-surface cervical abnormalities.
Cone biopsy Sometimes it might be necessary to cut away the affected cells in your cervix rather than destroying them with heat. This is called a cone biopsy, and a doctor will often choose this method of treatment if he or she can’t see the cells clearly. Performed under local or general anaesthetic, a cone biopsy is so-called because your doctor uses a heated loop to extract a cone-shaped piece of tissue from your cervix. (The cut-away tissue is cone shaped because the part that’s removed closest to the vagina is wider than the tissue taken from the junction of the cervix, following the natural shape of the neck of the vagina).
Cone biopsy is both a treatment and a diagnostic technique. The abnormal cells are cut away (and it’s unlikely you’ll have a recurrence) as a method of treatment but are then sent to a laboratory for further analysis. You may have some bleeding for up to three weeks after the procedure with the tissue is healing.
Vaccine A vaccine is now available to young girls to try to help prevent them from developing cervical cancer. It’s normally given to girls around ages 11 to 12 and aims to protect them against becoming infected with HPV. The vaccination is extremely controversial because it reduces the risk of a girl contracting genital warts, and therefore (the argument goes) could lull girls into a false sense of security and encourage promiscuity. Some reports suggest that the vaccination can have a number of unpleasant side-effects, including nausea, muscle weakness, fever, dizziness, and numbness. More worryingly still, some doctors have reported instances of girls developing paralysis, convulsions, and sight problems after they’d being given the vaccine.
Nutrition plays a crucial role in helping to prevent cervical dysplasia, and the right balance of nutrients may even, according to some studies, reverse abnormal cell changes altogether.
First and foremost, boost your intake of immunity-boosting antioxidants, in particular beta-carotene (which the body uses to make vitamin A), which research shows can be significantly deficient in women with cervical cancer. Orange vegetables and fruits are a sure sign of good beta-carotene content, so stock up on carrots, sweet potatoes, and cantaloupe, among all the other brightly colored fruit and vegetables you see. In addition, leafy greens such as broccoli, kale, and cabbage are all good vegetable sources. Other important antioxidant nutrients are vitamins C (in citrus fruits, green beans, and so on) and E (also found in leafy greens, as well as nuts and seeds), and the minerals zinc (in legumes, nuts, and whole grains) and selenium (fish and shellfish, grains, and garlic).
In addition, pile your plate with foods rich in folic acid (leafy green vegetables, yellow vegetables, and citrus fruits). An important B-vitamin, folic acid has been shown to slow the mutation of abnormal cells.