Time to ‘banish stigma’ associated with HPV
Mother of two was shocked that her cervical cancer was linked to the infection
When Ms Lim Ai Ling was told she had stage 3 cervical cancer in March 2017, she felt as if time had come to a stop.
Even more shocking for the 42-year-old administrator and mother of two was learning that her disease was related to the human papillomavirus (HPV).
HPV is the most common type of sexually transmitted infection and is passed on through skin-on-skin contact through the genital areas. The virus can lie dormant in a person for years or even decades.
Ms Lim's cancer battle lasted five "torturous and scary" months.
She told The New Paper: "I had total hair loss after the third session of chemotherapy, lost much of my appetite soon after, and felt nauseous every day."
To make things worse, the tumour started to bleed, which led to an additional daily routine of radiotherapy treatments for over a month.
Finally, she underwent a radical hysterectomy and today, she is in remission.
With International HPV Awareness Day taking place today, Ms Lim, who has been married for 16 years, hopes her story will encourage more women to take the initiative and learn how to protect themselves from HPV and thus lower their risk of cervical cancer.
She also wants to shed light on how HPV is contracted.
Ms Lim said: "It is commonly believed that only those with many sexual partners get HPV, but that is not always the case.
"I learnt that HPV can be contracted from (intimate) skin-to-skin contact with your sexual partner who is a carrier of the virus."
According to Dr Chia Yin Nin from Gynaecology & Oncology Specialists at Gleneagles Hospital, HPV is the main cause of cervical cancer.
She told TNP: "HPV infections are common among Singaporean women, and this cancer is the fourth most common in women worldwide.
"Singapore sees about 429 new cases and 208 deaths annually from the cancer."
Dr Chia said it is vital to banish the stigma of promiscuity associated with HPV.
"Women in their 40s and even 70s who have not been sexually active for two decades have been diagnosed with it. All it takes is exposure to HPV once," said Dr Chia
She recommends women having a pap smear or HPV test at least once every three years.
"Only through this can doctors detect changes to cells before they turn cancerous," she said.
While most HPV infections are transient, do not presentany symptoms and go away on their own, there are times when they persist and evetually lead to cervical cancer.
HPV is contracted through skin-to-genital contact, genital-to-genital contact and even non-penetrative sexual activities such as petting or fondling, where there is contact with bodily fluids.
It is categorised into two groups: Low-risk and high-risk HPV strains. The former does not cause cancer but is responsible for genital warts, while the latter (oncogenic strains) causes cancer.
Signs of cervical cancer include blood spots or light bleeding between or after periods; menstrual bleeding that is longer and heavier than usual; bleeding after intercourse, douching or a pelvic examination; increased vaginal discharge; pain during intercourse; bleeding after menopause; and unexplained and persistent pelvic and/or back pain.
While all adult women are advised to protect themselves from cervical cancer by getting vaccinated, Dr Chia stresses the importance of starting young.
She said: "I urge mothers with girls between nine and 14, before they get any kind of exposure, to get them vaccinated, as doing so provides 95 per cent protection against all cervical cancers. The immune system response to the vaccine tends to be stronger when one is younger."