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6 myths about cervical cancer debunked

Cervical cancer is the most prevalent form of cancer affecting South African women. We tackle its myths.

25 June 2015
by Karen Nel

According to the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA), one in 42 women have a lifetime risk of developing cervical cancer. Educate yourself about this cancer now by not believing the below misconceptions.

Myth 1: Cervical cancer can’t be prevented

In almost all cases, cervical cancer is caused by infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV), a common virus which is spread through sexual contact. By preventing infection with HPV (either through vaccination against the virus, or by abstaining from sexual activity), it is possible to prevent cervical cancer from developing.

“Factors which increase a patient’s risk of developing cervical cancer include sex at a young age, multiple sexual partners, promiscuous male partners and a history of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs),” says Dr Mark Stodel, a general practitioner in private practice in Pinelands, Cape Town.

Myth 2: I don’t need to have regular Pap smears if I have received the HPV vaccine

The HPV vaccine is not a substitute for regular Pap smears. “Pap smears are definitely still necessary as the vaccine protects against HPV types 16 and 18 and there are other high risk strains which can also cause cervical cancer,” says Knysna gynaecologist Dr Alice Shaw.

By going for a regular Pap smears, you enable your doctor to look for any abnormalities in the cervical area.

Myth 3: The HPV vaccine is only available to young or teenage girls

At present the South African government is only rolling out the vaccine free of charge for young girls, but anybody (including boys) can be vaccinated against HPV, says Dr Stodel. “It does, however, make sense to get the vaccine before you are sexually active to decrease the chance of contracting cervical cancer. For that reason it is recommended that all 10 to 12-year-olds be vaccinated. The vaccine is registered for use between the ages of 9 and 26.”

Myth 4: Cervical cancer has no noticeable symptoms

“Advanced cervical cancer may present with vaginal bleeding or an offensive discharge. It should, however, be picked up by Pap smear before these symptoms occur,” says Dr Shaw.

Dr Stodel adds that “by the time symptoms are evident, the cancer has typically progressed to a stage that requires a hysterectomy, chemo and radiotherapy. For this reason, it is crucial that all sexually active women have regular Pap smears.”

Myth 5: An abnormal Pap smear result means that I have cervical cancer

An abnormal Pap smear result means that some of the cells in your cervix don’t look normal. This could be caused by changes to the cells due to infection with HPV, or by bladder or yeast infections. Abnormal pre-cancerous cells can be treated successfully to prevent cancer from developing.

Myth 6: Abnormal cervical cells will affect my ability to have children

The treatment for fully-developed cervical cancer entails a hysterectomy, which obviously affects fertility. “However, regular Pap smears can pick up precancerous lesions and these can be treated by a small operation that does not affect fertility,” says Dr Shaw.

How Clicks Clinics can help you

Pap smears are available at selected Clicks Clinics. Call 0860 254 257 to find out where you can go for one and to book an appointment today.

IMAGE CREDIT: 123rf.com

Read More: Cancer Super Section