Bust the stigmas against cervical cancer

Bust the stigma against cervical cancer| Sunrise Oncology Centre

Cervical cancer can be treated successfully. There is light at the end of the cancer tunnel—the catch: Get screened for cancer regularly and get vaccinated against the Human Papillomavirus.

But, in India, the stigma associated with any ailment related to the reproductive organs makes it that much more difficult for women to come forward, get screed, vaccinated and diagnosed early.

So in this article, we talk to you about everything you need to know about the HPV vaccine and the common stigmas that prevent women from getting treated or screened.

What is the cervical cancer vaccine?

One of the most common causes of cervical cancer is the human papillomavirus (HPV) – a sexually transmitted infection. Therefore, getting the HPV vaccine can help reduce the occurrence of cervical cancer.

The HPV vaccine works by preventing the action of the HPV virus and can be given to a girl or woman before they’re exposed to the virus. Also, this vaccine can prevent other HPV related ailments like vaginal or vulvar cancer in women.

This vaccine can also be given to boys to prevent HPV-related infections like genital warts.

In theory, this vaccine helps contain the spread of the HPV and therefore protects girls and women from being infected by the virus.

As per Dr Ashay Karpe, Medical oncologist and haematologist, Sunrise Oncology Centre, “Whenever a vaccine is administered it mimics a natural infection, but since it is an inactive virus it helps the body produce antibodies to infection by HPV. This vaccine helps prevent certain precancerous conditions in the cervix. But, it is important for all women, those who have been vaccinated and those who have not to get regular screening tests like a Pap smear and gynaecological examinations.”

What is the right age for cervical cancer vaccine?

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that all 11 and 12-year-olds receive two doses of the HPV vaccines, six months apart. It is believed that the younger a child gets the vaccine, the more effective it is. Research shows that the two-dose schedule is useful for children under the age of 15.

Teens and women, who are over the age of 15 and younger than 26, should receive the HPV vaccine in three doses.

Where is the cervical cancer vaccine injected?

The HPV vaccines are administered intramuscularly in the upper arm or the upper area of the thigh.

Is Cervical Vaccine Safe?

The HPV vaccine is a safe and effective that can protect children and adults from HPV-related diseases.

Who should not take the vaccine for cervical cancer (HPV vaccine)?

This vaccine is not recommended for pregnant women or people who are moderately or severely ill.

If you have severe allergies or have had an allergic reaction to previous doses of the vaccine, you must not get the vaccine.

What is the side effect of the cervical cancer vaccine?

Dr Ashay Karpe, medical oncologist and haematologist, says, “There are no contraindications to the HPV vaccine. But it is recommended that those who are allergic to the vaccine components, or those who are on immunosuppressant drugs should avoid the vaccine. If you are on any regular medication, you should consult your doctor before taking the vaccine.”

While the side effects of the vaccine are usually mild, some common side effects include:

·         Soreness, swelling or redness at the injection site.

·         Dizziness or fainting after the injection.

·         Headaches,

·         Nausea,

·         Vomiting,

·         Fatigue or weakness.

Why can’t adults get the HPV vaccine?

Once a woman is exposed to the virus, the vaccine is no longer effective. And since, statistically,  several sexually active people have been exposed to the virus in their late 20s, it makes it more challenging for the vaccine to have an impact.

The CDC has now approved a vaccine for women between the age of 27 and 45. But this is recommended for adults who have received doses of the HPV vaccine in childhood or adolescence.

Social stigma for women to get tested for breast and cervical cancer

Breast and cervical cancer are two of the most common cancers among women worldwide and were the two leading causes of cancer related death for women in India in 2013.

While it is recognized that psychosocial and cultural factors influence access to education, prevention, screening and treatment, the role of stigma related to these two cancers has received limited attention.

The social stigma associated with breast and cervical cancer in women has a significant impact on how early the ailment is diagnosed and the survival rate.

Several studies have shown that women suffer from several stigmas, including:

Stigma: It’s an STD, so the woman is of questionable character

A study found that women who are aware of how the virus is spread (as an STD) experienced a higher level of stigma, shame and anxiety if they test positive for the virus as compared to women who are not aware of the mode of transmission

Stigma: Feeling of being unclean or trepidation to show one’s private parts to a doctor

Dr Ashay Karpe says, “The most challenging aspect of treating a patient with cervical cancer is that this disease is seen largely in women from the lower socio-economic strata where health education is a problem. Also most of these women come in when they notice symptoms like post menopausal bleeding or bleeding after sexual intercourse, so usually they feel very shy to share this problem. Usually these women would have also experienced vaginal bleeding over a few years or months, have a foul-smelling discharge which they do not get checked because they feel shy to share this problem. This delays diagnosis and is often detected at a later stage.”

Stigma: Cancer is contagious

Research also found that the myths about cancer being contagious also causes fear leading to a delay in being tested /screened. 

Dr Ashay Karpe says, “I have seen that people believe that the clothes of cancer patients should be washed separately, they should have separate bedding, they should not interact or come in contact with other family members, especially small children. All this is not needed and it should not be done. In fact cancer patients themselves are at risk of catching an infection for family members. When isolated, cancer patients get depressed and start to avoid treatment and in many cases do not respond to treatment as well.”

“Cancer patients do not require to be isolated. Isolation is only recommended when they have a very low WBC (white blood cell) count or low immunity. This is the only time cancer patients are isolated to protect them from getting infections. But, cancer patients should not be isolated because many times people fear that cancer is communicable and can be transmitted. Cancers are not infectious, neither are chemotherapy drugs . The only precaution is for lactating mothers to avoid breast feeding their infants.” Adds Dr Ashay Karpe.

Stigma: Cancer is always fatal

The myth that cancer is always fatal also prevents women from getting screened. In fact cervical cancer is usually very successfully treatable if diagnosed early.

What can we do:

A few step that can be taken to remedy the situation is to

Increase public awareness about the sexually transmitted nature of HPV  and about the vaccine. Dr Ashay Karpe says, “The main problem with the HPV vaccine is that it is not administered at the right time. We, as oncologists, feel that the HPV vaccine schedule should be community spread and all women should have access to it.

One of the reasons that women don’t get the HPV vaccine because they’re not usually aware that something like this exists. And most people realize the need for the vaccine when either they have already been exposed to the virus or they are too old to be administered the vaccine. But, now trends are changing as more and more people are becoming aware of the need for this vaccine. It is still required to create an awareness about this vaccine amongst the common population.  “

Awareness may reduce anxiety, and normalize  the infection.

Dispel the myth that cancer is contagious and emphasize the need for support for the ailing person.

Increase awareness about early testing/screening, which can help diagnose the disease at an early stage – making it very successfully treatable.

You may also like to read:


1]Ali F, Kuelker R, Wassie B. Understanding cervical cancer in the context of developing countries. Ann Trop Med Public Health. 2012; 5(1): 3. DOI: https://doi.org/10.4103/1755-6783.92871 

2] Bruni L, Albero G, Serrano B, et al. Human Papillomavirus and Related Diseases Report. Information Centre on HPV and Cancer (HPV Information Centre); 2019. https://hpvcentre.net/statistics/reports/XWX.pdf. 

3] HPV vaccine information for clinicians. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/hpv/hcp/clinician-factsheet.html. Accessed April 5, 2019.

4] Cox JT, et al. Recommendations for the use of human papillomavirus vaccines. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed July 7, 2016.

5] Waller J, Marlow LA, Wardle J. The association between knowledge of HPV and feelings of stigma, shame and anxiety. Sex Transm Infect. 2007;83(2):155-159. doi:10.1136/sti.2006.023333

6] Ongtengco N, Thiam H, Collins Z, De Jesus EL, Peterson CE, Wang T, et al. (2020) Role of gender in perspectives of discrimination, stigma, and attitudes relative to cervical cancer in rural Sénégal. PLoS ONE 15(4): e0232291. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0232291

7]Nyblade, L., Stockton, M., Travasso, S. et al. A qualitative exploration of cervical and breast cancer stigma in Karnataka, India. BMC Women’s Health 17, 58 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12905-017-0407-x

8] Global Burden of Disease Cancer C, Fitzmaurice C, Dicker D, Pain A, Hamavid H, Moradi-Lakeh M, MacIntyre MF, Allen C, Hansen G, Woodbrook R et al.: The global burden of cancer 2013. JAMA Oncol. 2015;1(4):505–527.

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