The cervix is part of a woman’s reproductive system. It is the narrow lower part of the uterus (womb) and opens into the top of the vagina. Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that occurs in the cells of the cervix. Cervical cancer can develop when the abnormal cells of the cervix begin to divide at an accelerated rate compared to the surrounding healthy cells.
This abnormal cell division can penetrate deeper into the layers of the cervix and spread to other tissues and organs. If left untreated, it may form a tumor (which is cervical cancer). It may take several years for normal cells in the cervix to turn into cancer cells. Your doctor can find abnormal cell changes by doing a Pap test to examine cells from the cervix. High-risk HPV types may cause cervical cell abnormalities or cancer.
Causes of Cervical Cancer
The primary cause of most cervical cancers is an infection of the human papillomavirus or HPV. There are over a hundred different types of HPV, but two of them – HPV 16 and 18 – are primarily responsible for most cases of cervical cancer. These HPV types can also cause cancer in other parts of the body, including the anus, vagina, vulva, neck, and head.
Because cervical cancer is so strongly linked to HPV, people at high-risk HPV are also at an increased risk of cervical cancer. Avoidance of HPV infection is important in the prevention of precancerous and cancerous changes of the cervix.
A vaccine to Prevent Cervical Dysplasia and Cervical Cancer
One important step in significantly reducing your chances of dysplasia and cervical cancer is to get HPV vaccine. Vaccinations have been found to prevent the most dangerous strains of HPV, including the strains that are known to cause cervical cancer and genital warts.
An HPV test looks for types of HPV that have been linked to cervical cancer. An HPV test can be done on the same cells used for the initial Pap test, called reflex HPV testing.
The Center for Disease Control advises that girls get vaccinated well before they are sexually active – at age 11 or 12. It is strongly recommended for the sole reason that it is currently the safest and most effective method to prevent cervical cancer. Girls and young women over the age of 12 should get vaccinated as well, even if they are already sexually active. It is also recommended that men get vaccinated against HPV.
Some risk factors of cervical cancer include:
- Early initiation of sexual contact/activity
- Multiple sexual partners
- Having a sexual partner, especially a male partner, who has multiple sexual partners
- History of dysplasia
- Family history of cervical cancer
- Some sexually transmitted infections (ex: chlamydia)
- Mother who took DES (diethylstilbestrol) during her pregnancy with you
Signs and Symptoms of Cervical Cancer
Precancerous cells, also known as cervical dysplasia, generally present with no symptoms at all. By the time you are experiencing cervical dysplasia symptoms, it’s likely that the problem has become cancerous and is much more difficult to treat. This is why it is important to always attend your regular pap screenings for early detection.
Some warning signs of cervical cancer include:
Early-stage cervical cancer does not produce signs or symptoms. Cervical cancer signs and symptoms include:
- Spotting or abnormal vaginal bleeding
- Heavy menstrual bleeding
- Bleeding after sexual intercourse
- Watery, bloody vaginal discharge that may be heavy and have a foul odor
- Pelvic pain or pain during sexual intercourse
Advanced cervical cancer symptoms include:
- Pelvic pain
- Weight loss
- Back pain
- Leg pain or swelling
- Urinary problems
- Bone fractures
- Swollen legs
- Urinary problems
Cervical cancer may spread (metastasize) within the pelvis, to the lymph nodes or elsewhere in the body. A tumor that has spread to other organs and tissues may begin to affect those systems as well. Take note of all of your symptoms and bring these concerns to your doctor. They will offer clues as to the progress of your condition.
Diagnosing Cervical Cancer
Following an abnormal Pap test results(also known as a pap smear), your OB-GYN will want to get a closer look at your cervix. Several cervical cancer screening tests and procedures can be used to get a clearer picture of the problem.
This procedure can allow your doctor to view your cervix through a magnifying instrument to identify the problem areas. Your doctor can then take a biopsy of the tissue to send to the lab for testing.
Your health care doctor will manually examine the pelvis and rectum to search for tumors in the uterus, ovaries, and surrounding organs.
Cervical cancer has been known to spread to other parts of the body. During a colonoscopy, your doctor inserts a narrow, hose-like lighted instrument called a colposcope through your rectum and to view your entire colon.
Using a thin, flexible, lighted instrument, your doctor will examine the inside of your urethra and bladder.
These tests can help your doctor to determine the cancer stage. Staging refers to a determination of the severity of your condition. Cervical cancer can be categorized as stage I-IV and as stage 0. Higher numbers indicate more invasive stages of cancer. Stage 0 generally means that cancerous cells exist on the surface layer of the cervix only, while stages III and IV indicate that cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
Cervical Cancer Treatment
If you are diagnosed with cervical cancer, your OB-GYN will refer you to an oncologist for further treatment options. Common treatments for cervical cancer include surgery (typically a hysterectomy, possibly a radical hysterectomy), chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. Your oncologist will determine the best course of treatment for you based on the cancer stage. It’s common to receive more than one type of treatment to ensure the best possible prognosis for recovery. Cancer treatments may be accompanied by mild to severe side effects.
After treatment, your gynecologist may recommend that you schedule pap smears every 3-6 months for a few years. Even patients treated with a hysterectomy will need to be screened regularly. This is to ensure that the cancerous cells were completely removed from the body.