What is Cervical Cancer and How Does It Differ in Developed vs Developing Countries?

Last month I got an email from the sweetest girl named Rebecca reaching out to let me know about the organization she worked for called Cure Cervical Cancer. Naturally, being the sexual/reproductive health obsessive I am and it being Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, I said absolutely.

Here’s some quick background, if you aren’t aware exactly what cervical cancer is (that’s okay, that’s why we’re here).

 

What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is cancer of the cervix. Where is the cervix you might ask? It’s the narrow opening on the bottom part of the uterus that connects the uterus (where you grow your baby) to your vagina (where you push that baby out).

Here’s a diagram just in case you wanted a visual: 

 

How does one get cervical cancer?

HPV, i.e. human papillomavirus, i.e. the most common STD

The good news is, there are more than 200 kinds of HPV and most of them are harmless and go away on their own. Like, so harmless, that most people never know they have it. 

But there are at least a dozen types of HPV (which, hey, compared to over 200 is not too bad) that can last and sometimes lead to cancer. We emphasize sometimes because, even if someone gets one the dozen “cancer-causing” HPV, their immune system will most likely fight it off - go antibodies.

And to get even more specific, there are two in particular (types 16 and 18 if we want to get scientific) that lead to the majority of cervical cancer cases. These are called “high-risk” HPV.

 

How can I prevent getting ~high-risk~ HPV?

HPV is spread by skin-to-skin contact with genitals, as well as oral, vaginal, and anal sex. That means it can be spread even if no one cums, and even if a penis doesn’t go inside the vagina/anus/mouth - you get the point. So even if you’re not “having sex,” you can still put yourself at risk in those oh so sweet moments of foreplay.

Like we said before, most kinds of HPV go away on their own if you do happen to get one. Obviously abstinence isn’t realistic for a majority of people and we’re here to be your asset when you are engaging in sexual activity. So what can we do? 

 

HPV Prevention 101:

Vaccines:

Remember those Gardasil vaccine commercials you used to see all over the place ten years ago? Well, those were for vaccines to prevent the four most common cancer-causing types of HPV out there, including 16 and 18, which we talked about earlier, and 6 and 11, which cause 90% of genital warts.

Storytime: I went and got this vaccine when I was in middle school (lol) and it’s a series of 3 shots over the span of 6 or so months. Super easy, and now I’m protected amongst the most high-risk types of HPV!

Shout out to my mom and television advertisements.

Screenings:

But vaccines aren’t the answer. ALL sexually active women are at risk of developing cervical cancer, even if you have received the HPV vaccine. That’s why screenings are the next important method of prevention.

General rule of thumb - get tested for HPV every 3 years.

How you might ask? Through Pap smears. In these tests, your doctor can check for one of two things: Pap smear - to check if your cells are normal (i.e. any precancers, or cell changes on the cervix that might become cervical cancer), and an HPV test, where those cells are tested specifically for HPV.

 

TL;DR:

The good news is cervical cancer is 100% preventable and the number of deaths of cervical cancer in the United States is decreasing by 50% from the ’70s to now because of the increase in awareness and screenings that lead to early detection.

 

So, how does this relate back to my conversation with Rebecca?

When Rebecca and I jumped on the phone last week, she informed me that while, in the United States, there has been a huge drop in cases of cervical cancer among women because of the resources and awareness around the topic (#BEAWARE amirite?). Still around 4,000 women die from in the United States annually, so this a friendly reminder to not skip your screenings people.

But what really stood out in my conversation with Rebecca was, when you shift your focus to outside the United States, the numbers tend to skew a little differently. The reality is 

87% of all cervical cancer cases occur in developing countries

Making it one of the greatest threats to women’s health.

Why?
Because of an immense lack of screenings and services

How does Cure Cervical Cancer come into the picture?

We already know that cervical cancer is not only treatable but 100% preventable with early detection and treatment. The unfortunate reality is that a woman dies of cervical cancer every two minutes (according to the World Health Organization) and a disproportionate 87% of these women live in resource-poor countries where lack of wide-scale screening fails to identify cervical cancer until it is invasive and access to treatment for invasive cancer is virtually non-existent.

Because we already established that if precancerous changes on the cervix are detected and treated early, a woman will not develop cervical cancer, you can understand why the lack of screening is an issue. 

The World Health Organization recommends a simple and cost-effective screening procedure called VIA (visual inspection with acetic acid) where precancerous cervical changes can be spotted with the naked eye. The cells can be immediately treated with ablation methods of cryotherapy or thermal ablation which destroy the precancerous tissue completely in 95-90% of cases.

Without the intervention of early detection and treatment, women in resource-poor regions will continue to die from cervical cancer at an alarming rate. 

In fact, the World Health Organization predicts that by the year 2040 cervical cancer deaths will increase by 50%. 

Which sucks. The world’s most vulnerable women are unjustly dying from a disease that we have the knowledge and tools to prevent. 

How CureCervicalCancer can help.

CCC prevents cervical cancer through a community-driven model of outreach. By providing services, community outreach, and education and advocacy. They target medically underserved and socioeconomically disadvantaged women through different programs including 

  1. Training for Healthcare Professionals
  2. Community Health Worker Training 
  3. Donation of “Clinic in a Suitcase”
  4. Establishing Sustainable “See & Treat” Clinics and Mobile Clinics
  5. Technical Support for Cervical Cancer Prevention Program

 

How you can help.

Interested in learning more and supporting CCC? Head over to CCC’s website to learn more and see how you can help or get involved.

 

With love and awareness,

Sara Shokouhi - Founder


In partnership with CureCervicalCancer - https://curecervicalcancer.org/