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Cervical Cancer Prevention Week

Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in women under 45, both in Ireland and around the world. Around 180 Irish women are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year, and over 70 women die annually from the disease. Next week is Cervical Cancer Prevention Week, which aims to raise awareness about how to prevent this most serious and life-threatening disease.
Cervical cancer is predominantly caused by a long-term infection of cervix by the Human Papillomavirus (HPV).  HPV is transmitted by sexual contact, and therefore the risk of contracting it is increased by starting sexual activity at a young age, having multiple sexual partners, and not using barrier methods of contraception.  Once it has been contracted, the HPV virus may lead to the development of abnormal cells on the cervix, a condition known as ‘cervical dysplasia’. In some cases, cervical dysplasia may lead to the development of cervical cancer.

There is now a vaccine available in Ireland, which prevents infection from the two high-risk strains of HPV that cause over 70% of all cervical cancers. It is recommended that all girls should be vaccinated at around 12 years of age. However, it is important to be aware that the vaccines provide no protection against the other strains of HPV (which cause the remaining 30% of cases of cervical cancer), and vaccination offers no benefit to women who are already sexually active. Therefore it is still just as important for all women to continue having regular smear tests. There  have also been a number of reports of serious adverse reactions to vaccine to date, and the long-term effects are unknown.

The main symptoms of cervical cancer are abnormal bleeding and lower back-ache. However, cervical cancer does not usually cause any signs or symptoms until the very late stages. Therefore cervical screening with regular smear tests is the only way to ensure that any abnormal cells are detected and treated early.

Cervical screening involves taking a sample of cells from the cervix and examining them for any abnormalities. The National Cancer Screening Programme, CervicalCheck, provides free smear tests to women aged 25 to 60.  Women under 45 should attend for screening every three years, and women over 45 should attend every five years. Women who have not had a smear test in over three years can register online at the CervicalCheck website, or by calling CervicalCheck on Freephone 1800 45 45 55.

If the results of the smear test show abnormalities, the patient may be referred for a more detailed examination of the cervix (colposcopy), or for a biopsy of cervical tissue; but in many cases the patient is simply advised to return for another smear test every six to twelve months to monitor the changes. This is because cervical dysplasia does not always lead to cancer, and even where this does happen, it may take 10 years or more for cervical abnormalities to become malignant.

Fortunately there are natural ways of helping to prevent cervical abnormalities from leading to cancer.

First of all, it is important to stop smoking and to reduce the intake of red meat, fatty foods and sugar, all of which encourage the development of cancerous cells. Antioxidant nutrients such as vitamins A, C, E, and the minerals selenium and zinc play an important role in assisting the immune system to fight the virus, and preventing the development of cancerous cells. Foods which are rich in antioxidant nutrients include coloured fruits and vegetables (such as carrots, pumpkin, broccoli, raspberries and blueberries), and nuts and seeds (such as brazil nuts and pumpkin seeds).

Immune tonics such as Astragalus, and antiviral herbs such as Thuja and St Johns wort can help the body to control the virus. These can be combined with herbs which prevent cell dysplasia such as meadowsweet and periwinkle. A professional medical herbalist can provide an individually-tailored herbal prescription, nutritional supplements and detailed advice about cancer prevention