The cervix is the organ that forms the opening of the uterus, located at the top of the vagina. 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).
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 strains of HPV, but two of them – HPV 16 and 18 – are primarily responsible for most cases of cervical cancer. HPV 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 for HPV are also at an increased risk of cervical cancer.
Some risk factors of cervical cancer include:
- Early initiation of sexual 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 presents with no symptoms at all. By the time you are experiencing 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.
Some warning signs of cervical cancer include:
- Spotting or abnormal vaginal bleeding
- Heavy menstrual bleeding
- Bleeding after sex
- Watery vaginal discharge
Advanced cervical cancer symptoms include:
- Pelvic pain
- Swollen legs
- Urinary problems
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 smear, your OB-GYN will want to get a closer look at your cervix. Several 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 lap for testing.
Your 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 stage your cancer. 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 the 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. Common treatments for cervical cancer include surgery (typically a hysterectomy), chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. Your oncologist will determine the best course of treatment for you based on the stage of your cancer. It’s common to receive more than one type of treatment to ensure the best possible prognosis for recovery.
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.