Eating excessive junk food can be an underlying cause of cervical cancer: Experts

19 January,2024 02:56 PM IST |  Mumbai  |  Aakanksha Ahire

Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in India affecting women aged 15 - 44. Experts say, that by adopting healthy lifestyle habits, one can lower the risks of developing cancer. With the ongoing Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, we spoke to two health experts who share key insights

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India has the highest incidence rate of cervical cancer in the world, accounting for nearly a quarter of the cases recorded globally. It is also the second most common cancer in India. Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that affects the cells of the cervix, which is the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. It is the second most frequent cancer among women aged 15-44 in India.

One of the main causes of cervical cancer is infection from a common virus called human papillomavirus (HPV). Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection is closely associated with cervical cancer, with about 95 per cent of cases involving HPV. Long-term infection with certain types of HPV, such as HPV-16 and HPV-18, can transform normal cervical cells into abnormal ones, leading to the development of cervical cancer.

However, besides this, health experts say, one's lifestyle plays a key role in the likelihood of developing cancer.

With the ongoing Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, we spoke to two health experts - Dr Yogesh Kulkarni, surgical oncology, head-gynecologic oncology, robotic surgeon, Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital and Dr Sravanthi Nuthalapati, consultant gynaecology oncology, Karkinos Healthcare, dissect the role of adopting a healthy lifestyle to reduce the risk of cervical cancer.

What are the symptoms?
"Cervical cancer usually doesn't cause any symptoms in the early stages. However, as the disease progresses, various signs and symptoms can occur," says Nuthalapati.

These include:
1. Abnormal vaginal bleeding:
This can occur after intercourse, between periods, or after menopause. Abnormal vaginal bleeding is a common symptom. It may also present as heavier or longer menstrual bleeding than usual.

2. Pelvic or back pain:
Discomfort or pain in the pelvic region or back can occur, which may be noticeable during or after sexual intercourse.

3. Unusual vaginal discharge:
Changes in vaginal discharge, which might be watery, bloody, heavy, and have a foul odour, is a sign of cervical cancer.

4. Pain during intercourse:
Experiencing pain during sexual activity is another symptom that can be associated with cervical cancer.

5. Abdominal pain and fatigue:
Pain in the abdomen and a general feeling of tiredness may also be symptoms of cervical cancer. However, this may also be caused by various other conditions.

6. Swelling of the legs:
There may be swelling in the legs in cases of advanced cervical cancer which spreads to the local lymph nodes and blocks the drainage of lymph leading to swelling.

7. Pelvic or back pain:
Apart from pelvic pain, back pain may also be a sign of cervical cancer.

It's important to note that these symptoms can be caused by conditions other than cervical cancer. However, if symptoms are persistent, you should consult a gynaecologist for evaluation.

Who is more at risk?
Anyone with a cervix, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity is at a risk of cervical cancer. According to Kulkarni, "Women aged 15-44 are at risk of cervical cancer." He lists down other key lifestyle factors that can raise the risk of developing cancer

1. Unsafe sexual practices:
Initiation of sexual activity at an early age, having multiple sexual partners increases the risk of exposure to HPV and other sexually transmitted infections, raising the likelihood of cervical cancer.

2. Smoking and tobacco consumption:
Smoking increases the chance of developing precancerous lesions of the cervix, known as dysplasia. The toxic chemicals in tobacco smoke can damage the DNA in cervical cells, increasing the likelihood of cancerous growth.

3. Alcohol consumption: Excessive alcohol weakens the immune system, making it harder for the body to fight off infections, including HPV. A compromised immune system increases the risk of cervical cell damage.

4. Obesity: Being overweight or obese may increase the risk of cervical cancer, as excess body fat can lead to chronic inflammation, damaging cells and increasing the risk of cancer.

5. Physical inactivity: Lack of physical activity is linked to an increased risk of cervical cancer. Exercise helps maintain a healthy weight and reduces inflammation, lowering the risk of the disease.

Nuthalapati adds, "Women who have had three or more full-term pregnancies are also at an increased risk of developing cervical cancer possibly due to increased exposure to HPV infection, hormonal changes during pregnancy making women more susceptible to HPV infection or weaker immune systems during pregnancy."
Further, having a diet low in natural foods like fruits and vegetables and consuming more junk or unhealthy food can also increase the risk.

Another key factor that one must not forget is the use of oral contraceptives. Nuthalapati says "Long-term use of oral contraceptives for more than five years has been associated with an increased risk of cervical cancer, especially in women with HPV. However, the risk decreases after stopping the contraceptives.

What lifestyle changes help lower the risk?
Adopting healthy lifestyle habits helps lessen the risk of cervical cancer, say Kulkarni and Nuthalapati.

1. Avoid smoking:
Tobacco use is a significant risk factor for cervical cancer. Quitting smoking can reduce the risk and improve overall health.

2. Maintain a healthy weight:
Obesity can increase the risk of cervical as well as other cancers. Regular physical activity and a balanced diet can help maintain a healthy weight.

3. Regular physical activity: Regular exercise boosts the immune system and helps maintain a healthy weight, both of which are important for reducing the risk of cervical cancer.

5. Moderate alcohol consumption: Excessive alcohol consumption may weaken the immune system. Limiting alcohol intake can also lower the risk of cervical cancer.

6. Safe sexual practices: Using condoms during sexual intercourse can reduce the risk of HPV infection. Limiting the number of sexual partners and avoiding early sexual activity can also decrease the likelihood of acquiring HPV.

7. Stress management: Chronic stress can weaken the immune system, making the body less capable of fighting HPV infections. Effective stress management techniques, such as meditation, exercise, and sufficient rest, are beneficial.

It's important to remember that while these lifestyle choices can significantly reduce the risk of cervical cancer, regular check-ups remain important for early detection and effective management of risks.

How does a healthy diet help?
Kulkarni strongly stresses following a healthy diet to ensure overall good health besides its role in lowering the risk of cervical cancer. He lists down key nutrients found in various foods that can help:

1. Antioxidants, carotenoids, and flavonoids: Found in fruits and vegetables, these components help fight off HPV infections and prevent cervical cell changes.
2. Folate: Present in fruits and vegetables, it contributes to preventing the transformation of cervical cells into cancerous lesions.
3. Vitamins A, C, D, and E: Found in fruits and vegetables, these vitamins act as scavengers of free radicals, preventing DNA damage to cervical cells by HPV infection.
4. Limiting the consumption of red and processed meats while focusing on a diet rich in plant-based foods may contribute to cervical cancer prevention.

Besides key lifestyle modifications, undergoing regular screening tests, such as Pap smears and HPV tests, are crucial for early detection and prevention of cervical cancer. Vaccination against HPV, a common virus that can lead to cervical cancer, is also recommended to reduce the risk of developing the disease.
It's important to remember that while the above-mentioned factors can lessen the risk of developing cervical cancer but cannot completely rule out the chances of developing the disease.

Disclaimer: This information does not replace professional medical advice. Consult a qualified specialist or your physician for personalised guidance.

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