Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that occurs in the cells of the cervix, the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. There are 13,000 new cases of invasive cervical cancer each year in the United States, but cervical pre-cancers are diagnosed far more often. Most cases of this cancer tend to occur during midlife when women are between the ages of 35 and 44.
Cells on the cervix do not suddenly change into cancer overnight, rather they gradually develop pre-cancerous changes that have the potential to develop into cancer later. Luckily, these pre-cancerous cells can usually be detected by a Pap test and treated to prevent any cancer from developing. It is advised that women begin having annual Pap tests at age 21 or when they first become sexually active.
Various strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection, play a role in causing most cervical cancer. When exposed to HPV, a woman’s immune system typically prevents the virus from doing harm. In a small group of women, however, the virus survives for years, contributing to the process that causes some cells on the surface of the cervix to become cancer cells. Today, many women, especially young women, receive a vaccine that protects against HPV infection.
Early-stage cervical cancer generally produces no signs or symptoms. More advanced cervical cancer can show signs and symptoms such as vaginal bleeding after intercourse, between periods or after menopause; watery, bloody vaginal discharge that may be heavy and have a foul odor; pelvic pain or pain during intercourse.
Treatment for cervical cancer depends on several factors, such as the stage of the cancer. These stages are categorized by numbers I through IV.
Stage I means the cancer is confined to the cervix.
Stage II means the cancer is present in the cervix and upper portion of the vagina.
Stage III means the cancer has moved to the lower portion of the vagina or internally to the pelvic side wall.
Stage IV means the cancer has spread to nearby organs, such as the bladder or rectum, or it has spread to other areas of the body, such as the lungs, liver or bones.
After an accurate diagnosis, surgery, radiation and chemotherapy are typically used as the course of treatment, and often in a combination of all three. Surgery options typically include a simple hysterectomy (tumor, cervix and uterus are removed) or a radical hysterectomy (tumor, cervix, uterus, part of the vagina and lymph nodes are removed).
Several preventative measures can be taken to reduce the risk of cervical cancer, including limiting the number of sexual partners, practicing safe sex, getting vaccinated against HPV, having routine Pap tests and by not smoking.