Millennials differ with their parents in their sexual beliefs and behaviors. The prevalence of sexually suggestive messages in mass communications and social media in the 21st century have encouraged young people to experiment with sex at a much younger age. Most often, these sexual encounters are unplanned and casual (sometimes occurring after the first date or meet-up). This new-found freedom is sadly exacting it price on a growing number of young Filipinas.
Studies show that many Filipinos aged as young as 15 years old, engage in casual, unprotected sexual intercourse. Young as they are, they are unaware of the risks and consequences of this behavior. One of the risks is exposure to sexually transmitted diseases and infection from the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV).
Women with many sexual partners face a greater risk, while those who start unprotected sexual intercourse before the age of 16 face the highest risk. Smoking and prolonged use of oral contraceptives can also increase the risk of HPV infection.
This is how cervical cancer in women usually comes about: It starts with HPV infection of the cervix which, if it does not clear over time, can trigger abnormal growth in the cells of the inner lining between the uterus and the vagina. These cells may then develop pre-cancerous, pre-invasive changes, which are called Cervical Intraepithelial Neoplasia (CIN). If left untreated, the CIN can turn into into an invasive cancer.
A study by the University of the Philippines College of Medicine shows that approximately 12 Filipino women die of cervical cancer every day. It is the second most common cancer among women in the Philippines and yet, it is highly treatable if detected at an early stage. The Philippine medical community in cooperation with the Department of Health has declared May as Cervical Cancer Awareness month with the tag line BABAE, MAHALAGA KA! and has been organizing free screenings in DOH- retained hospitals during this time.
In Singapore, the number of new cases has dropped significantly over the years and has pushed the ranking of cervical cancer down from fifth to 10th place. Today, cervical cancer is often tagged “the 100 per cent preventable cancer”. Because of a relentless information campaign, more Singaporean women who are considered ‘high risk’ are undergoing early screening so that they can get treated in the early or even pre-invasive stages.
One of the most common screening methods for cervical cancer is the Pap smear. This involves taking a sample of cells from the surface of the cervix during a vaginal examination. This test is quick, simple and painless. Doctors recommend that sexually active women should have Pap smears every three years.
If a Pap smear reveals that some cells in the cervix are abnormal, further tests may be done. This may include a colposcopy – examining the cervix with a microscope. This procedure is also quick and painless. Doctors may also order a chest X-ray, CT scan, MRI of the abdomen and pelvis, or examination of the pelvis.
One of the challenges of trying to detect cervical cancer is that there are no symptoms in the early stages. By some estimates, half of all women discover they have cervical cancer only when it is in the advanced stage, when the cancer has spread.
In its late stages, symptoms of cervical cancer include:
- Vaginal bleeding following intercourse or after menopause
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding between periods
- Unusual vaginal discharge that may be heavy or smell foul
- Lower abdominal pain or back pain
- Painful or difficult urination and cloudy urine
- Chronic constipation
- Leaking of urine or stool from the vagina
Another way to prevent HPV infection is through vaccination. Two vaccines, Cervarix and Gardasil,have been shown to prevent 70 to 80 percent of cervical cancer, and are considered safe by the World Health Organization. Doctors recommend the vaccines for women between the ages of 9 and 26. Vaccination, however, does not fully guarantee that a woman will not get HPV infection or be spared from cervical cancer.
A woman’s best protection against HPV infection and cervical cancer are safe, protected sex, a healthy lifestyle and regular Pap smears every three years.
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