What We Misunderstand About The Human Papillomavirus And Cervical Cancer

Posted by Rimli Bhattacharya in Health and Life
April 20, 2018

“Oncogenic HPV infections comprise a significant risk factor for incident cervical abnormalities, and HPV test is a useful adjunct to cytology in detecting the high-risk patients among baseline PAP smear-negative women.” – Renata C. Gontijo, Universidade Estadual de Campinas (UNICAMP), Brazil (European Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Biology, August 20, 2007)

We all remember Jade Cerisa Lorraine Goody, better known as Jade Goody. She was a television personality. She is recalled mainly for two reasons: First, she made a racist comment against actress Shilpa Shetty on the “Big Brother” show and the second is that she died at the tender age of 27, an age nowhere close to death. She left behind two little children. The reason behind her death was cervical cancer.

While we are breaking taboos by talking of menstruation loud and clear (I was a victim of online trolling on Twitter when I supported the menstrual campaign by journalist Barkha Dutt; I was told that I was seeking attention from men, so I guess the mindset is still misogynistic) in my essay, I am going to speak on cervical cancer, women and also the misunderstood virus named HPV (Human Papillomavirus).

Any abnormal malignant cell growth in our body is known as cancer. Cervical cancer derives its name from the cells interlining the lower part of the female womb, which is the uterine cervix. While the primary and most common reason behind HIV/AIDS is unprotected sex with multiple partners, it has been seen that people with high sexual activity get HPV which leads to cervical cancer. To a certain extent, what amazes me is the real cause of cancer is still a highly debated area and here, we are passing a judgment that sex can be a reason for cancer. Unfortunately, it is.

It generally takes 10-15 years to go from a pre-cancerous stage to full-blown cervical cancer. But studies say it can also happen in the short span of a year. Sometimes, for the lucky ones or for people who have led a healthy lifestyle, this cancer vanishes on its own in the pre-cancer stage itself. But for others, it can turn into invasive cancer. The most common cervical cancers are: squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma. You can read more on them here.

Now, let me come to the misinterpreted subject. For people like me who aren’t doctors, we generally say that HPV is the reason for cervical cancer. But HPV actually leads to several types of cancer. I will explain HPV in a nutshell for the society to understand and keep a healthy lifestyle.

Genital HPV is a very common sexually transmitted infection which usually has no symptoms. As I said earlier, it can go away by itself, but can sometimes cause serious illness. HPV is responsible for:

  • almost all cases of genital warts and cervical cancer
  • 90% of anal cancers
  • 65% of vaginal cancers
  • 50% of vulva cancers
  • 35% of penile cancers
  • 60% of oropharyngeal cancers (cancers of the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils)

The startling factor is we all have (to be precise, four out of five people) have at least one type of HPV at some point in our lives. For example, rashes on the tongue, genital warts, and other areas described above. There is another misconception that HPV affects only women, but no, it affects both the genders. Likewise, as HIV/AIDS spreads through blood transfusion, HPV also spreads through genital sex via ruptures in the skin, that is skin-to-skin contact which are sexual.

As mentioned earlier, we get HPV at some point in our life. If not treated, it can turn fatal. Certain symptoms include: abnormal vaginal bleeding in women after sex, a nagging pain in the back or pelvis and leg, fatigue, anorexia, fetid vaginal discharges in women and a lot more.

If the HPV continues in the body, then the development of cervical cancer increases. This can happen due to intercourse at an early age, multiple sex partners and also sex with immune compromised people.

This is where we get the relationship between HPV and cervical cancer. And we must raise an alarm if any warts or lesions refuse to heal on our privates or on our tongue, throat etc. As it is mentioned in the essay, we can have HPV at some point in our life. It is mandatory for a woman to undergo the Pap smear test after she is 21 years old. Further details on the test can be read here.

The disease can be controlled if one maintains a proper hygiene, keeps a check on the diet and doesn’t engage in sexual activity but then the bad news is it can lead to death within a year or a maximum five years. The sad example of a victim of cervical cancer is Jade Goody.

To conclude this essay, I say do not misapprehend HPV. It not only fetches cervical cancer but is also responsible for other sex transmitted diseases and many forms of cancer. So open up and break the anathema if you face any such symptoms. Engage in safe sex and use proper protection.

Bollywood is making movies like “Padman” trying to break the stigma regarding menstruation or a movie like “My Brother Nikhil”, which was a poignant tale of a man suffering from AIDS and also on AIDS awareness. Someday, Bollywood will also make a movie on HPV and cervical cancer maybe after reading my essay – who knows? Let us not wait for the film industry to bring awareness to these issues. Let us all educate ourselves on them and also have a safe sex and a healthy sex life. Someone has to lose for someone else to win. So let HPV/cervical cancers lose and let human beings win.