Cancer is a scary word. We all know at least one person who has either been diagnosed or has a family member diagnosed with some form of cancer. And out of all the different types of cancer prevalent in India, cervical cancer is the second most common one leading to death.
Even though the symptoms of cervical cancer are hard to miss, it is ignored to a greater extent. Plus, thanks to the HPV vaccine, this type of cancer is preventable. So here’s a detailed guide that tells you everything you should know about cervical cancer and the potentially life-saving vaccine:
What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that occurs in the cells of the cervix, which is the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. As is the case with all cancers, cervical cells start multiplying abnormally and start spreading to other parts of the body.
99 percent of cervical cancer cases are due to infection with certain strains of human papillomavirus or HPV. Since HPV passes through sexual contact (including vaginal, oral, or anal sex), both men and women who are sexually active and do not follow safe sex practices are at risk of getting infected. Moreover, penetrative sex is not a prerequisite for getting infected with HPV as prolonged intimate skin-to-skin contact can also transmit HPV.
Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women. In India alone, cervical cancer accounts for 16.5% of the total cancer cases affecting women. But there’s good news too — if detected early, cervical cancer is highly treatable and patients in remission enjoy a good quality of life. And with timely administration of the HPV vaccine, it is also possible to prevent cervical cancer from occurring.
Like any other type of cancer, cervical cancer also progresses through various stages. A woman in the early stages of the disease may not notice any signs at all. As cancer spreads through the body, one may start noticing signs. Here are cervical cancer symptoms and signs you need to watch out for:
- Irregular bleeding in post-menopausal women
- pain during sexual intercourse
- Smelly vaginal discharge
- Blood in vaginal discharge
- pelvic pain
- bleeding between menstrual cycles
- Abnormal bleeding after sexual intercourse
As the cancer advances, you may also notice the following symptoms:
- Back pain
- Leg pain or swelling
- Weight loss
- Frequent fractures
- Difficulty in urinating or passing bowels
- Blood in the urine
Apart from the cervical cancer symptoms, beware of these risk factors that increase the chances of cervical cancer when a woman gets infected with HPV:
- Using oral contraceptives for a long time
- Giving birth multiple times
- Smoking cigarettes
- Having a weakened immune system
- Being sexually active from a young age.
- Having multiple sexual partners
Additionally, research shows that women with unhealthy vaginal bacteria are at an increased risk of cervical cancer. To counter the risk, always maintain proper hygiene down there and use appropriate personal care products.
What is the HPV vaccine and who needs it?
The HPV vaccine protects against different types of HPV that cause cervical cancer in women and genital warts, penile, anal, and oral cancer in men.
Gardasil 9 is the generic name of the vaccine, and it is administered in two or three shots. While the vaccine can protect the recipients from getting infected by HPV, it cannot cure or treat an existing HPV infection.
In most countries, Gardasil 9 is also approved to be used for both genders. But as the risk of women getting cervical cancer through HPV is much higher than men getting oral or anal cancer due to HPV, very few men get vaccinated. Still, there is a solid case for vaccinating men as that can substantially reduce the transmission of HPV infection to women.
Ideally, one should get vaccinated before becoming sexually active and exposed to HPV. But even if you are already sexually active and have been exposed to certain strains of HPV, you can still benefit from vaccination to prevent infection from other strains. However, the protection may not be as strong. So if you haven’t been vaccinated but are sexually active, does it make sense to get the vaccine?
What’s the best age to receive the HPV vaccine?
Cervical cancer vaccination guidelines of most countries recommend HPV vaccine to be administered to children who are 11 or 12 years old. Since early vaccination aims to protect from HPV, which spreads through sexual contact, it works best if given before the recipients become sexually active. In case someone doesn’t get jabbed as an adolescent, then they should try to get it as soon as possible.
Currently, anyone up to the age of 26 is advised to get the HPV vaccine. But that doesn’t mean you are not eligible to get the vaccine later in life. The vaccine can be administered up to age 45 for both men and women. In fact, the Center for Disease Control in the US recommends that recipients between 27 and 45 consult with their doctor about getting the vaccine.
Even if the HPV vaccine cannot offer the same level of protection to older recipients as it would to the younger ones, it can still be effective in protecting against high-risk strains of HPV.
What are the benefits of getting an HPV vaccine and how long do the effects last?
The biggest benefit of the HPV vaccine is protecting against specific strains of HPV you haven’t already been exposed to. Once you are vaccinated, you reduce the chances of getting infected and developing several types of cancers, including cervical cancer, throat cancer, anal cancer, vaginal cancer, and penile cancer.
Current research shows that recipients remained immunized against HPV for at least ten years. Surprisingly, certain strains of HPV can infect you but remain inactive in the body for years. Your immune system takes care of it. Cancers or genital warts due to the infection take time to develop. So the earlier you get the vaccine, the longer you stay protected.
Common myths about HPV vaccines
There are too many myths about cervical cancer vaccine that prevent the recipients from getting jabbed. Let’s bust some common ones:
You can get a blood clot after the HPV vaccine
There is no solid evidence that the cervical cancer vaccine puts the recipients at an increased risk of blood clots.
If you are monogamous, you don’t need the HPV vaccine
Even though you may have sexual activity with a single partner, your partner may have had sexual encounters with different people. As HPV is a sexually transmitted virus, it is best to get the shot to protect yourself.
Once I get the cervical cancer vaccine, I can never get cervical cancer
The job of the HPV vaccine is to reduce the chances of getting cervical cancer, not guaranteeing that you will never get it.
Moreover, the vaccine doesn’t offer protection against certain carcinogenic HPV types. So even if you have received your shots, you still need to go for periodic screening.
HPV Vaccine can make me infertile
None of the clinical trials or research has proved that the HPV vaccine can lead to infertility due to premature ovarian failure.
On the contrary, cervical cancer can make it difficult for women to conceive. The treatment can result in a variety of complications with the cervix leading to pre-term labor. So getting the vaccine on time can actually protect fertility.
If I get the cervical cancer vaccine, I don’t need to go for Pap tests
The HPV vaccine doesn’t replace Pap tests. You must go for routine pap smear exams once you turn 21.
If you are older than 30 years, an additional HPV screen test that involves testing a sample of cells collected from the cervix is also recommended to determine whether you have been infected with high-risk HPV. High-risk HPV can cause abnormal growth of cells and put you at an increased risk of developing cervical cancer.
Are there side effects to getting an HPV vaccine?
Like every vaccine, the HPV vaccine also comes with its fair share of side effects. Apart from pain, soreness, and swelling at the injection site, it is also not uncommon to experience nausea, fatigue, or dizziness. You may also experience fever, headaches, or muscular aches and pains.
Usually, the side effects get better within a day or two. But if you continue to experience them for longer or report any other symptoms post-vaccination, such as breaking into hives or rashes or finding it difficult to breathe, make sure to speak to your doctor immediately.
Who shouldn’t get an HPV vaccine?
So is the cervical cancer vaccine for everyone? Not really. If you are pregnant or moderately or severely ill, you are not eligible to receive the vaccine. If yeast or latex triggers an allergic reaction in your body, you are better off staying away from the vaccine.
Although the HPV vaccine is incredibly safe, as a rule of thumb, always discuss your past medical history and allergic reactions to vaccines in general with your doctor before you get jabbed.
Getting the HPV vaccine can go a long way to protect you from getting diagnosed with cervical cancer. Speak to your doctor right away and find out whether it’s the right time for you to get jabbed!