Most cases of cervical cancer are associated with persistent infection by the human papillomavirus (HPV) and there are also other factors that increase the risk. For this reason, it is essential to follow the recommendations of specialists, since to a large extent it is possible to prevent cervical cancer.
Cancer is one of the most feared and deadly diseases of our time, as it does not discriminate against anyone, and can affect any part of the body, from the skin to internal organs. For example, cervical cancer is the fourth most frequent type of cancer in women worldwide, with an estimated incidence of 604,000 new cases and 342,000 deaths in 2020 alone, according to figures from the World Health Organization (WHO).
It has also been shown that 50% of highly malignant precancerous cervical lesions are caused by infection with types 16 and 18 of the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), which are transmitted mainly through sexual contact.
Although much remains to be done to find a definitive cure, much progress has been made in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer in recent years. For this reason, through various actions, such as the World Cervical Cancer Prevention Day, which is celebrated every March 26, we seek to promote among the world’s population a greater awareness of the importance of early detection and the adoption of healthier habits, to minimize the risks of developing this condition.
What are the main risk factors for contracting HPV?
It is believed that genetic factors may play a role; however, as reported by Marco Sánchez Salcedo, gynecologic oncologist at the Clinica Ricardo Palma, this condition may appear in women between 30 and 50 years of age for the following reasons:
- Human Papillomavirus (HPV) infection: Undoubtedly the most important risk factor for cervical cancer. HPV is a group of more than 150 related viruses, which are sexually transmitted, and it is estimated that most people become infected shortly after becoming sexually active.
- Sexual history: Women who become sexually active early – before the age of 18 – are at increased risk of developing the condition, especially if they have had multiple sexual partners, as HPV infection is highly possible.
- Smoking: Women who smoke are about twice as likely to develop cervical cancer as those who do not. Studies have found that the chemicals in tobacco can damage the DNA of cells in the cervix. In addition, smoking makes the immune system less effective in fighting HPV infections.
- Immunosuppression: Ultimately, women who have a weak or compromised immune system, whether due to HIV, organ transplants or medications, are at increased risk, as the immune system is critical in destroying cancer cells and slowing their growth and spread.
- History of sexually transmitted diseases: Those who have suffered from diseases, such as chlamydia or gonorrhea, are more predisposed.
- Prolonged use of birth control pills: Currently, there is evidence that long-term use of oral contraceptives increases the likelihood of cervical cancer; however, the risk may decrease after discontinuation.
- Inadequate nutrition: Undoubtedly, a nutritional regimen poor in fruits and vegetables and rich in fats, carbohydrates and sugars can contribute to the development of this type of cancer.
How to prevent cervical cancer?
Prevention is crucial to avoid the development of diseases such as cervical cancer, so the specialist recommends considering some measures, including:
- Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination: The HPV vaccine is highly effective in preventing HPV infection, which is the leading cause of cervical cancer. The vaccine is recommended for all girls and young women before their first sexual intercourse. Full inoculation includes three doses: the first dose at age 9 years, the second dose 2 months after the first dose, and the third dose 4 months after the second dose.
- Regular screening tests: Cervical cancer screening tests, such as the Pap test and HPV test, can help detect the disease in the early stages, when it is most treatable. Additionally, it is important for women to begin screening starting at age 21 and have regular testing as recommended by their physician.
- Reducing risk factors: Some risk factors, such as smoking and having multiple sexual partners, can increase the risk of developing cervical cancer. Therefore, addressing these risk factors can help prevent the disease.
- Condom use: Using condoms during sex can help reduce the risk of contracting HPV and other sexually transmitted infections that can increase the risk of cervical cancer.
- Healthy lifestyle: Maintaining a healthy lifestyle, including a balanced diet and regular exercise, can help reduce the risk of cervical and other cancers.
- Finally, Sanchez stresses that if anyone is experiencing any symptoms that concern them, it is essential to see a doctor immediately. She also reminds us that, with prevention and proper treatment, many women can overcome cervical cancer and lead healthy lives.
Dr. Marco Sánchez Salcedo
Gynecologist oncologist of the Clínica Ricardo Palma