With 500 000 new cases diagnosed annually, cervical cancer is not only one of the most common cancers to affect women worldwide; it’s also one of the most misunderstood.
How much do you know about cervical cancer?
In the run-up to National Cervical Cancer Awareness Week (17 to 23 November 2014), we separate myth from fact and dispel a few important misconceptions about this very real health threat.
Myth #1: Cervical cancer is a death sentence
Having cervical cancer doesn’t mean your life is coming to an end. Although cancer of the cervix – or any type of cancer for that matter – can be difficult to overcome, this does not mean it’s incurable. The earlier the cancer is detected (before it has spread and still is at a treatable stage), the higher your chances of survival. This makes regular and adequate screening extremely important.
Myth #2: The more tests, the better
Many women are under the impression that, when it comes to medical tests, more is better. This isn’t always the case. Extra tests don’t only mean additional costs (for both you and your medical aid); they may also cause unnecessary concern, have side effects, and lead to health complications.
According to the American Cancer Society, women ages 21 to 29 years should get a Pap test every 3 years, and women ages 30 to 65 years should get a Pap test and an HPV test every 5 years, or get just the Pap test every 3 years (depending on their risk).
Going for extra check-ups and more medical testing isn’t necessarily beneficial. Do, however, talk to your gynaecologist about more regular screening tests if you think you’re at increased risk.
Myth #3: Testing positive for HPV means you will develop cervical cancer
The human papillomavirus (HPV) is an infection that can cause changes in the cervix, which may lead to cervical cancer. It’s a very common virus in both men and women, and is easily passed on through sexual intercourse. Quite often, there are no apparent symptoms.
If you test positively for HPV, this means that you have the virus in your system. This does not mean that you have or will get cervical cancer. HPV usually goes away on its own as your immune system fights the infection naturally. However, contracting the virus does increase your chance of developing cell changes in the cervix (where the virus can live), which could cause cervical cancer over time.
Myth #4: No symptoms, no cancer
There are no symptoms linked to the early stages of cervical cancer, but once the cancer becomes invasive, you may experience:
- Pain in the pelvis
- An unpleasant vaginal discharge
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding, which may occur after sexual intercourse, between menstrual periods, or after menopause
As the cancer becomes more invasive, you may also encounter leg and back pain, swelling of the leg, bleeding from the rectum, and blood in the urine. Once the cancer has spread throughout and outside of the pelvic region, you may experience all of the symptoms mentioned above, as well as the coughing up of blood.
The bottom line? Get tested. Early detection and treatment – before you experience obvious symptoms – could stop the cancer from developing and spreading.
Myth #5: Cervical cancer only affects older women
This is probably the most common myth about cervical cancer among younger women. The truth is that cervical cancer can affect women of any age.
“The average age at diagnosis for precancerous changes of the cervix (known as dysplasia) is 29 years, and for invasive carcinoma is 47 years,” according to Myths & Facts about Cervical Cancer: What You Need to Know by Bradley Monk (2007).
While it’s rare for a woman to develop cervical cancer in her 20s, anything is possible and prevention is better than cure. This is why going for regular screening from the age of 21 is extremely important. Even if you’re not having sex yet, or aren’t experiencing any symptoms of HPV or cervical cancer, get tested – at least every three years.
The same can be said for older women. Pap smears and HPV tests should be done religiously, even after menopause. Your risk for cervical cancer doesn’t decrease with age.
Myth #6: Cervical cancer can’t be prevented
In most cases, cervical cancer can be prevented, and one of the best ways to do this is to go for regular screenings.
In total, there are about 40 types of genital HPV. Some can cause genital warts (which your doctor might see with a visual inspection); others can cause cell changes in the cervix that can cause cervical cancer. An HPV test, which looks for HPV on the cervix, can identify whether the virus is present.
The familiar Pap test looks for pre-cancerous changes in the cervix that might lead to cancer. If pre-cancerous tumours are found, they can be treated before they become invasive. These are usually also smaller and easier to treat than big, malignant growths.
Another way to prevent cervical cancer is to prevent contracting HPV in the first place, which is essential to the development of cervical cancer. Ways to avoid the virus include making healthier lifestyle choices such as avoiding smoking, limiting your number of sexual partners, delaying sexual intercourse, and practising safer sex.
Myth #7: Only promiscuous women are at risk of developing cervical cancer
It’s strongly believed that only women who have had multiple sexual partners can get cervical cancer. The fact of the matter is that anyone who has had sex, even if it was with just one partner, is at risk for cervical cancer.
This is because HPV, the sole cause of cervical cancer, is spread easily through sexual contact, regardless of the number of sexual partners. While having more than one sexual partner is a risk factor for the disease, it isn’t the only risk factor in the development of cervical cancer.
Myth #8: Cervical cancer is contagious
HPV that causes cervical cancer is transmitted through sexual contact. This infection is highly contagious. Cancerous cells themselves, however, cannot be spread from one person to another.
Myth #9: Cervical cancer runs in the family
There is no proven inheritable link for cervical cancer. Unlike most other cancers, your genetic makeup does not affect your chances of developing this disease.
Cervical cancer is caused by the sexually transmitted disease HPV. Because your DNA does not play a role, you can prevent cervical cancer altogether.
Myth #10: You cannot develop any other cancers in the reproductive tract once you’ve had cervical cancer
Cervical cancer patients are also at risk for vaginal, vulva and anal cancers, as these can also be caused by HPV. Despite receiving treatment, there’s also a risk for uterine cancer if you still have your uterus. Your ovaries can also develop tumours if they’re still present after treatment.
Even if you’ve completed treatment for cervical cancer, and have been given the “all clear” by your doctor, close observation and surveillance still need to take place for the rest of your life. This includes going for frequent screenings and medical check-ups.
Cervical cancer vaccination for SA school girls
What you need to know about the HPV vaccination
What causes cervical cancer?
HPV test best for assessing cancer risk
- Krishnansu Sujata Tewari, Bradley J. Monk. 2007. Myths & Facts about Cervical Cancer: What You Need to Know. Oncology Group, CMPMedica. Available from:
- American Cancer Society. What Women Should Know about Cancer and the Human Papilloma Virus. Available from:
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What Women with a Positive HPV Test Result Should Know. Available from: