Cervical and ovarian cancer: what you need to know

Cervical and ovarian cancer: what you need to know

Cervical cancer is more prevalent among women in South Africa than ovarian cancer, but it is essential to have knowledge of both of these cancers in order to facilitate prevention and ensure early detection.

Three things that all play a role in a cancer diagnosis are family medical history, your environment and your lifestyle choices. Over the first you have no control, partial control over the second and lots of choice over the third.

The second most common cancer among South African women is cervical cancer. The only more common cancer is breast cancer, and says the Cancer Association of South Africa, one in every 47 women in the country will be diagnosed with cervical cancer.

The cervix is the lower part of the uterus, or the mouth of the womb and abnormal cancer cells can develop here.

The causes of cervical cancer

Cervical cancer is caused by the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), which is a very common sexually transmitted infection.  It stands to reason then that early sexual contact and multiple sex partners would increase a woman’s risk of being infected with HPV.

Cervical cancer is a slow-developing cancer, and mostly affects women between the ages of 35 and 55. There may be no immediate symptoms (sometimes abnormal vaginal bleeding and a vaginal discharge can point to problems), but regular Pap smear tests (in which cells taken from the cervix are looked at under a microscope) can detect the condition while it still pre-cancerous.

The HPV vaccination can protect against cervical cancer, and the SA government started a programme in 2014 to vaccinate all girls in Grade 4 in the country.

Ovarian cancer

In 2010, 414 women in South Africa were officially diagnosed with ovarian cancer.  Older women are at a higher risk for developing ovarian cancer. The exact causes of this cancer are unknown, but women are at an increased risk if they smoke, gave birth late in life (or not all), if they take oestrogen replacement  only after menopause, or are obese, to name just a few of the risk factors.

Women have two ovaries which house the egg cells and produce hormones. Risk factors for ovarian cancer include obesity, having had no children, or had them late in life, using oestrogen replacement only after menopause, smoking, and suffering from endometriosis, to name but a few.

The symptoms of ovarian cancer

Often there are no symptoms in the early stages of ovarian cancer, but sometimes women experience a feeling of being bloated, or needing to urinate more frequently.

A doctor will have to do a biopsy (where a bit of tissue is taken and checked for cancer cells) in order to diagnose ovarian cancer.

Like many other cancers, ovarian cancer is described using ‘staging’. Stage 1 means the cancer is limited to the ovary, and stage 4 means it has spread to other parts of the body.

Treatment for ovarian cancer includes surgery, chemotherapy (using drugs to fight cancer), targeted therapy (attacking only the cancer cells with drugs), hormone therapy and radiation therapy in which high-energy rays are used to kill cancer cells.

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In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, MediHub cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.