January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month (CCAM).
The cervix is the part of the female reproductive system that connects the neck of the uterus (womb) to the vagina. Cervical cancer occurs when abnormal cells within the cervix begin to grow uncontrollably. Unlike normal cells, these abnormal cells are not destroyed by body, but instead continue to grow into tumours and in advanced stages spread to other organs in the body.
“Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women, and the seventh overall, with an estimated 528,000 new cases in 2012. As with liver cancer, a large majority (around 85%) of the global burden occurs in the less developed regions, where it accounts for almost 12% of all female cancers.”
Cervical cancer typically affects women under the age of 50, with those of African and Hispanic origin being most at risk. Other factors including infections with human papilloma virus (HPV), smoking, the prolonged use of oral contraceptives and a poor diet can raise the risk of developing cervical cancer.
- Infections with high-risk Human papilloma virus (HPV) strains: While infections with HPV are common and can often be cleared by the body, chronic infections with high-risk strains (particularly HPV-16 & 18) can lead to cervical cancer in women and penile cancer in men.
- Prolonged use of oral contraceptives: The longer a woman uses oral contraceptives, the greater the risk of developing cervical cancer. Using oral contraceptives for at least five years can double the risk of developing cervical cancer. However, this risk is reduced once the use of oral contraception is stopped.
- Smoking: Scientific research has shown that components of cigarettes such as nicotine are present in the cervix of women who smoke. These components and their by products can interfere with the DNA of cells found within the cervix, leading to their abnormal growth and cancer. Some scientific studies also suggest that smoking can interfere with the body’s ability to clear HPV infections thereby increasing the risk of cervical cancer.
- Diet: A diet lacking in adequate amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables and high in alcohol may be associated with an increased of all cancers. Fruits and vegetables provide important phytonutrients including antioxidants that fight cancers.
- Obesity: Insulin is the hormone produced by the pancreas that regulates sugar levels in the body. Being overweight or obese can increase the risk of developing insulin resistance (an inability to respond to insulin) and hyperinsulinaemia (excessive insulin in the blood stream). Insulin resistance is a risk factor for developing all cancers.