By: Jean Lilquist
Although worldwide cervical cancer is the third most common type of cancer in women, it is much less common in the United States because of routine Pap tests. And it could occur even more infrequently than that (see article below).
Cervical cancer begins in cells on the surface of the cervix (the lower part of the uterus that opens at the top of the vagina). The development of cervical cancer is usually very slow. It starts as a pre-cancerous condition called dysplasia. This pre-cancerous condition can be detected by a Pap smear and is 100% treatable. Almost all cervical cancers are caused by HPV (human papillomavirus), a group of viruses that are spread through sexual intercourse. Most adults have been infected with HPV at some time in their lives, but most infections clear up on their own. Some types of HPV can cause changes to cells in the cervix. If these changes are found early, cervical cancer can be prevented by removing or killing the changed cells before they can become cancer cells. A vaccine for females ages 9 to 26 protects against two types of HPV infection that cause cervical cancer.
The major cause of cervical cancer is the presence of certain types of the human papillomavirus. Therefore it is vital that women get regular Pap tests, which help find any abnormal cells. Undetected, pre-cancerous changes can develop into cervical cancer and spread to the bladder, intestines, lungs, and liver. It can takes years for pre-cancerous changes to turn into cervical cancer. Patients with the disease do not usually have problems until the cancer is advanced and has spread.
When present, common symptoms of cervical cancer may include vaginal bleeding, which includes bleeding between periods, after sexual intercourse, or post-menopausal bleeding; unusual vaginal discharge, usually a watery, pink, or foul-smelling discharge; or pelvic pain, especially during intercourse.
The following women are more at risk for cervical cancer than others.
- Women who have had three or more full-term pregnancies, or who had their first full-term pregnancy before age 17, are twice as likely to get the disease.
- Smoking doubles the risk.
- Women who take oral contraceptives for more than five years have an increased risk, but this risk returns to normal within a few years after the pills are stopped.
- Certain types of sexual behavior are considered risk factors for cervical cancer and HPV infection. These include sex before 18, sex with multiple partners, and sex with someone who has had multiple partners. Studies also show a link between Chlamydia infection and cervical cancer.
- Women with a weakened immune system or health condition such as HIV have a higher risk of developing cervical cancer.
Having an HPV infection or other risk factors does not mean that a woman will develop cervical cancer. Most women who have risk factors for cervical cancer never develop it. If abnormal changes in cells are discovered, the cervix is usually examined under magnification in a procedure called a colposcopy, where pieces of tissue are surgically removed (biopsied) and sent to a laboratory for examination. If the biopsy reveals cancer, the doctor needs to determine the stage of the disease to help decide upon the best treatment. Staging will help determine whether the tumor has invaded nearby tissues, or to other parts of the body. Cervical cancer spreads most often to nearby tissues in the pelvis, lymph nodes, or the lungs. It may also spread to the liver or bones.
Women with cervical cancer have many treatment options. These are surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of methods. The choice of treatment depends mainly on the size and shape of the tumor, the age and general health of the patient, and whether the cancer has spread. The treatment choice also may depend on whether the woman wants to become pregnant someday.
This article is reprinted from H.O.P.E. Lifeline (January, 2017) - monthly newsletter distributed by H.O.P.E. Click here to view the full newsletter. If you would like to receive the newsletter by e-mail each month, you may subscribe today (no cost or obligation and you may unsubscribe at any time).