Poonam Pandey’s ‘death’ to cervical cancer highlights importance of screening at a younger age

Despite numerous awareness campaigns, people often neglect screening for this preventable disease, which even has a preventive vaccine.

ByChetana Belagere

Published Feb 02, 2024 | 7:10 PMUpdatedFeb 03, 2024 | 12:36 PM

Poonam Pandey allegedly died of cervical cancer on 2 February at the age of 32. (Wikimedia Commons)

The untimely demise of Poonam Pandey, a vibrant model and actor, at the age of 32 due to cervical cancer shocked the country on Friday, 2 February. While she did not die in reality, as it was revealed that it was a PR stunt, the actor’s deception — though in poor taste — did what it set out to do. Raise awareness about cervical cancer and get the conversation going.   

Pandey’s “battle with cancer” and her “death” were announced by her manager on her Instagram account on Friday.

Whether a PR stunt or not, doctors are a worried lot. Despite numerous awareness campaigns, people often neglect screening for this preventable disease, which even has a preventive vaccine.

“Poonam Pandey’s ‘fake death’ brings to the fore the grim realities of cervical cancer, its aggressive nature, and the critical importance of early detection and responsive treatment. While she didn’t die of it, other young women have. It is time we ensure we vaccinate for HPV at an early age,” Dr V Annapurna, Senior Consultant and Head of the Department of Gynaecologic Oncology at Bengaluru-based Sri Shankara Cancer Hospital and Research Centre, told South First.

Also Read: This doctor urges HPV vaccination for both genders

What is cervical cancer?

Speaking to South First, N Sapna Lulla, Lead Consultant, Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Aster CMI Hospital in Bengaluru, explained that cervical cancer arises in the cervix, the lower part of the uterus connecting to the vagina, primarily due to long-term infection with high-risk strains of the Human Papillomavirus (HPV).

Vaccination against HPV and regular screenings are key preventive measures. HPV is sexually transmitted and responsible for almost all cervical cancers.

It can develop from pre-cancerous changes in the cervix, which are detectable through regular screening tests like pap smears.

Also Read: New cervical cancer vaccine to be part of immunisation drive

No obvious symptoms

Dr Annapurna cautioned that this cancer often shows no symptoms.

“This is one virus which can just sit in patients without showing any symptoms. Unless you screen for the virus, patients will not even realise they have cervical cancer. By the time they realise, many of them would be in the last stages or stage 4 of cancer,” she explained.

At-risk women are those who have early onset of sexual activity, multiple sexual partners, and other factors contributing to HPV exposure.

Also, those with autoimmune conditions, renal failure, and those fighting another form of cancer will have low immunity.

Dr Lulla listed out a few symptoms visible in advanced stages. She said it is important to that if anyone notices any of these symptoms, it is advisable to consult a doctor as early detection plays a key role in treating cancer.

Some of the symptoms are:

  • Vaginal bleeding between menstrual cycle, post intercourse, or after menopause
  • Heavy menstrual bleeding lasts more than regular days
  • Heavy foul-smelling vaginal discharge
  • Pelvic pain or pain during intercourse

Also Read: Early immunotherapy may be most effective treatment for cervical cancer

Dying young

Cervical cancer and related deaths can occur at an early age, particularly in cases where the disease is not detected or treated promptly.

While many found Poonam Pandey’s “death” at the age of 32 suspicious, Dr Annapurna said it is not surprising.

“There are patients who have even died by 30 years of age. Screening early is important. The rarity of some tumours and the aggressive nature of these can take lives even at a young age,” she added.

Meanwhile, suggesting two possible reasons for deaths at an early age, she said, “Either the tumour that has grown might be extremely aggressive or the person might have been diagnosed at a later stage and the body might have not been very responsive to the treatment or it could have even reoccurred.”

Dr Niti Raizada, Senior Director, Medical Oncology and Hemato-oncology at Fortis Hospitals in Bengaluru, said that death at a younger age can occur due to a complex interplay of factors.

First, certain strains of HPV are more aggressive and can progress rapidly even in young immunocompetent individuals. Second, early detection through regular pap smears or HPV testing is crucial.

If undetected, pre-cancerous cells can progress unnoticed, increasing the risk of complications and death at a younger age, she said.

“Additionally, certain health conditions like weakened immunity due to HIV or genetic predispositions can exacerbate the risk and severity of HPV infection in younger women. Even with prompt diagnosis and treatment, advanced or metastatic cervical cancer can be challenging to manage and some young women may not respond well to standard therapies,” she further said.

She also recommended early detection and intervention to prevent deaths from cervical cancer at any age. “Vaccination against HPV, regular screening, and addressing healthcare disparities are crucial steps in protecting young women from this preventable disease,” she added.

Also Read: Karnataka’s door-to-door cancer screening initiative puts spotlight on early detection

Preventive measures

Doctors suggested some of these preventive measures.

Regular pap smears: Starting at 21, regular screening helps detect precancerous cells early, when they are highly treatable.

Maintain a healthy lifestyle: A balanced diet, regular exercise, and avoiding smoking reduce cancer risk overall.

Safe sex practices: Limiting sexual partners, using condoms, and getting vaccinated against other sexually transmitted infections offer additional protection.

Also Read: The most common cancers among women in India

Cervical cancer vaccination

With the launch of India’s first HPV vaccine, Cervavac, in January 2023, targeting four types of HPV infections, there is a beacon of hope in preventing the initial onset of HPV-related cervical changes.

Health authorities recommend vaccination for girls aged 9 to 14, aiming to shield them before their first sexual encounter, thereby significantly reducing the risk of developing cervical cancer later in life.

It may be noted that Union Minister Nirmala Seetharaman also in her interim Budget announced that the Union government will encourage HPV vaccination for young girls.

It is recommended to opt for the cervical cancer vaccine as it shields against high-risk HPV strains, significantly reducing the risk of developing this potentially deadly disease a powerful tool capable of protecting countless women.

Meanwhile, it is important to start screening at an early age of 25 years, once every year, up to the age of 70-80 years, rather than wait till 40 years of age to screen for this cancer.