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Understanding the interplay between cervical cancer and mental health

There's a need to raise awareness of the impact of mental health on cervical cancer and encourage regular cervical screenings

Mental ailments can affect one's decision-making abilities related to  sexual health.
Mental ailments can affect one's decision-making abilities related to sexual health. (Pexels/Shvets Production)

Mental health issues have become a popular discussion topic in most health forums today. The younger generation, particularly Gen Z, is embracing the importance of seeking professional help and counselling for mental health challenges that earlier used to be brushed under the carpet. But does this mean that this generation is emotionally weaker, can't fight emotional battles alone, and constantly needs reassurance and counsel from professionals? Or are youngsters today simply more open to addressing mental health issues by seeking professional help?

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While all these questions are part of most round table discussions, it's also necessary for us to correlate the impact of mental health on physical well-being. With January observed as Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, one such topical concern is the impact of mental health on cervical cancer. 

Cervical cancer and mental well-being 
Cervical cancer is a malignancy affecting the lower part of the uterus known as the cervix. The most common factor that causes cervical cancer is the human papillomavirus (HPV). Certain strains of the HPV are considered cancer-causing, making it a major risk factor for the disease. Having multiple sexual partners is also considered to be a common cause of cervical cancer. Today, there is a certain awareness about cervical cancer vaccines, but despite that, there remains a reluctance among many young individuals to come forward and seek this preventive measure.

How does mental health affect cervical cancer?
Mental health plays a pivotal role in the context of cervical cancer, influencing various aspects of an individual's life. Mental ailments and issues such as depression, anxiety, poor confidence levels, panic episodes, or more complex issues like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder can impact decision-making regarding sexual health. Individuals grappling with mental health concerns may be less likely to prioritize safe sexual practices in terms of using appropriate protection and hygiene. Moreover, those engaged in drug abuse may be at a higher risk of exposure to unprotected sex or having multiple sexual partners.

Prevention and early detection 
The primary means to help prevent cervical cancer is through getting vaccinations and regular screenings done. Regular gynaecological check-ups, including annual PAP smears, are simple yet effective methods for early detection of cervical cancer. A PAP smear involves collecting a sample from the discharge of the cervix – this aids in the identification of abnormalities at an early stage.  Unfortunately, individuals with mental health issues may find it challenging to stay focused on their physical health thereby potentially neglecting preventive measures and regular check-ups. 

The cost of treatment, including counselling, is another concern that could stop them from visiting a gynaecologist to get timely medical attention. This may lead to delayed diagnosis and treatment with lower chances of survival.

During the microscopic stage of cervical cancer, there are hardly any symptoms that can be identified, thereby making diagnosis challenging. This also plays a vital role in increasing the tendency or incidence of cervical cancers in many women.

The correlation between mental well-being and cervical health highlights the need for a more prominent awareness campaign around women’s reproductive health. While the younger generation's openness to mental health is commendable, it is crucial to ensure that this awareness extends to the physical aspects of well-being. Encouraging regular cervical screenings, dispelling myths about the cancer, and addressing the unique challenges faced by women with mental health issues can significantly reduce the incidence of cervical cancer. This Cervical Cancer Awareness Month affords us an opportunity to foster good awareness of the interplay between mental health and physical health and empower women to take charge of their overall well-being and create a healthier future.

Dr. Hemanandini Jayaraman is Consultant – Obstetrics & Gynaecology with Manipal Hospital, Old Airport Road, Bengaluru. 

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