Cervical Cancer Awareness Month September 2023

A woman dies from cervical cancer every two minutes. Without drastic action, cervical cancer deaths will almost certainly rise a further 50% by 2030. Even for those who survive, the health consequences are dire, including medical conditions such as infertility, making prevention a priority.

Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, observed in September each year, aims to raise awareness that up to 80% of cervical cancers can be prevented through two important preventive measures of cervical cancer: vaccination against the human papillomavirus (HPV) and regular screening that enables early treatment of any pre-cancerous lesions.

Cervical cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in women in over 40 countries.

Worldwide, a woman is diagnosed with cervical cancer every minute, and a staggering 600,000 new cervical cancer cases are diagnosed every year. Devastatingly, more than 300,000 women globally die from cervical cancer each year.

Here in South Africa, cervical cancer is the second most common cancer among women, and many die from it each year. According to Dr Arina Meyer, medical practitioner in Kovsie Health at the University of the Free State, figures show the occurrence of cervical cancer to be between 22,8 and 27 per 100,000 women in South Africa. More than 5,700 new cases are reported each year, as well as more than 3,000 deaths.

But even for those who survive, the health consequences are dire, including medical conditions such as infertility, making prevention a priority.

For this reason, Cervical Cancer Awareness Month is observed in September each year with the aim of encouraging women to take preventative measures.

This is because cervical cancer can be prevented. In fact, up to 80% of cervical cancers can be prevented through two important preventive measures of cervical cancer: vaccination and regular screening that enables early treatment.

HPV vaccination

Vaccination is the first crucial prevention measure. This is because most cervical cancers are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is transmitted through sexual contact and therefore regarded as a sexually transmitted disease. HPV is thought to cause the cervical cells to grow uncontrollably and develop into cancerous cells.

There are more than 100 different types of HPV, and some cause cervical cancer and while others cause genital warts. A person can develop one or both conditions, depending on the type of virus contracted.

Fortunately, there is a vaccine for protection against HPV. By getting the vaccine early, before any sexual activity, the spread of HPV – and therefore cervical cancer – can be prevented. This is because HPV vaccines are highly effective in young people who respond well to the vaccine when given before exposure to HPV.

The HPV vaccination is available from the age of nine, and the World Health Organization recommends vaccinating girls, aged between 9 and 14 years.

Sadly, if a woman is already infected by the HPV, the vaccine will not help.

Annual cervical screening

The second precautionary measure is going for a cervical screening every year once sexually active, such as a Pap smear or Pap test. The goal of screening for cervical cancer is to find cervix cell changes and early cervical cancers, even before they cause symptoms.

This is because when cervical cancer is diagnosed early, it can be treated. And like many cancers, the earlier cervical cancer is detected, the higher the chances are of survival.

Cervical cancer can take many years to develop. Before it does, the cervix cells often show changes which creates an opportunity to treat these changes before it progresses into cervical cancer.

For example, in the US, the five-year survival rate for women diagnosed with cervical cancer at an advanced stage is just 15%, compared with 93% if diagnosed when the cancer has not spread. Another study showed that when cervical cancer is diagnosed earlier at Stage I, the five-year survival rate is a positive 78%, but when cervical cancer is only diagnosed at Stage IV, the five-year survival rate is a dismal 9%.

The World Health Organization recommends that women who are sexually active be screened for abnormal cervical cells and pre-cancerous lesions, starting from 30 years of age. Cervical cancer screening should be done regularly, even by women who have had HPV vaccination.

What else can be done to prevent cervical cancer?

There are additional risk factors for cervical cancer, including smoking, a weak immune system and having many children or having children at a very young age.

Quitting smoking will reduce the chances of cervical cancer, as women who smoke have double the likelihood of developing cervical cancer.

It is also important to keep your immune system strong, because women who have compromised immune systems, including those living with HIV, being more likely to have persistent HPV infections and a more rapid progression to pre-cancer and cancer.

Having more than five children, or having them at an early age – before the age of 17 – is also a risk factor for cervical cancer.

While cervical cancer in its early stages may not offer any signs or symptoms, it is also important to be aware of some of the possible signs or symptoms linked to this cancer, such as unusual vaginal bleeding after sex, between period cycles and/or post-menopause; unusual pain or discomfort during sex; severe vaginal discharge that is bloody, watery and has an unpleasant odour; as well as lower back and/or pelvic pain. If you have any of these symptoms that are persistent, consult a healthcare professional without delay.

How can cervical cancer be treated?

If cervical cancer has already developed, there are several treatment options available, including surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

These treatments can be highly effective especially when cervical cancer is caught early. However, both cervical cancer and its treatment will come at a significant health cost, not least of which is a high risk of infertility.

This is because some chemotherapy medicines and radiation treatments may destroy your eggs or damage the uterus or stop your ovaries from working, and a hysterectomy will remove the cervix and uterus.

Cervical cancer and infertility

Unfortunately, after most treatments for cervical cancer, many women won’t be able to get pregnant. For some, this can be one of the most difficult and upsetting long-term effects of cervical cancer treatment.

If your cervical cancer is still in the early stages, it is important to speak to your healthcare provider about fertility-sparing treatment options, such as conisation or a cone biopsy, or simple or radical trachelectomy.

If your doctor recommends chemotherapy, radiation, or a hysterectomy, you may want to consider freezing your eggs before you get those treatments.

Freezing your eggs may allow you to conceive through IVF or other techniques and either carry the pregnancy, if you still have your uterus, or work with a surrogate.

Where can you have eggs frozen?

For more than a decade, Cape Fertility has offered egg freezing as a viable option for women to preserve their fertility. We are a leading fertility clinic providing advanced preservation of your future fertility through the latest in egg freezing techniques.

Your first step in preserving your fertility by freezing your eggs at Cape Fertility is simply to contact us by clicking here our highly qualified and experienced fertility specialists will gladly answer your questions and address any concerns you may have.

We value each individual patient, and we look forward to providing you with our signature individualised and personalised care when you have eggs retrieved, frozen and stored in a friendly, relaxed and caring environment at our advanced, purpose-built facilities in the beautiful city of Cape Town.