Regular screening for cervical cancer is an important part of maintaining good reproductive health. Along with breast cancer and ovarian cancer, cervical cancer is one of the most common types of cancer affecting a woman's sexual organs. However, in spite of recent advances in medical research, many women know very little about the disease.
That is why we have developed this guide, which includes information on cervical cancer symptoms, how a pap smear can help detect cervical cancer in its early stages, and information on a new cervical cancer vaccine that may prevent this type of cancer altogether.
What is Cervical Cancer?
Just as with other cancers, cervical cancer occurs when normal cells in the cervix transform into cancerous cells. The cervix is located in the lower, narrow part of the uterus or womb.
Cervical Cancer Causes
Cervical cancer is most often caused by strains of the HPV virus. A pap smear is the best way to detect cervical cancer and a pap smear can even detect cancerous cells before they become cancer. In fact, due to Pap test screening, the mortality rate of cervical cancer has greatly dropped over the past four decades; however, of the 10,000 women diagnosed annually in the United States with cervical cancer, nearly 4,000 of them die from the disease. The five-year survival rate of cervical caner is over 90% if the cancer is limited to the cervix.
If an abnormal pap smear shows significant transformation of cervix cells, a doctor will often recommend a colposcopy.
During a colposcopy, an instrument known as a colposcope is used to see the cervix and vaginal cells in greater detail in order to determine whether cell mutation has occurred. If the cells have not yet become cancer, then they can be removed without any damage to the cervix. If caught early--in the pre-cancer stage--then this form of cancer does not have to be life threatening.
Cervical Cancer Risk Factors
Half of all cervical cancer cases occur in women ranging from 35 to 55 years of age.
Factors that put women at risk for developing cancer of the cervix include:
- A high number of sexual partners, since this puts a woman at risk for developing hpv
- Early sexual activity: becoming sexually active before the age of 18 increases the risk of cervical cancer. This is because immature cells are more vulnerable to the cell mutation caused by HPV
- STDs: having other sexually transmitted diseases like chlamydia or HIV/AIDS also puts you at greater risk
- Smoking: smoking results in a greater chance of the cell mutation related to cervical cancer
- Weak immune system: many women who contract HPV never develop cervical cancer while a weakened immune system caused by another health condition increases the risk of HPV infection leading to cervical cancer
Cervical Cancer Treatment
Depending on the stage of the cancer's development, cervical cancer treatment will vary.
Pre-invasive cervical cancer is usually treated by the following options:
- cryosurgery: the cancerous cells are frozen and killed
- laser surgery: an intense beam destroys malignant cells
- hysterectomy: this major surgery removes pre-cancerous or cancerous cells in the cervix and uterus
The following treatment options are most effective in treating more advanced cervical cancer:
- hysterectomy: this surgery is recommended for younger women; the ovaries and estrogen production are preserved in order to avoid bone mass loss
- radiation: rays destroy tumours by killing cancerous cells; in premenopausal women, menopause will occur because of decreased ovarian function
- cone biopsy: a cervical biopsy in which a cone-shaped wedge of tissue is removed and analyzed
- LLETZ (Large Loop Excision of the Transfer Zone): a surgical procedure in which irregular cervical cells are completely removed
- chemotherapy: this treatment involves anti-cancer drugs that travel through the bloodstream. Chemotherapy also increases the effects of radiation therapy
Fertility and Pregnancy
Cervical cancer can lead to a loss of fertility unless it is detected and treated at a very early stage.
Treatment for cervical cancer can also impact fertility; a hysterectomy, for example, which involves the removal of the uterus, will lead to infertility. However, for the majority of women, treatment doesn't affect future pregnancies, unless a cone biopsy or an LLETZ is performed.
In addition, cone biopsies and LLETZ are also linked to a small increase in the risk of pre-term birth or giving birth to an underweight baby. If you don't have a hysterectomy or if you're treated for pre-cancerous changes, there are no pregnancy risks.
Talk to your doctor about the cervical cancer treatments available and how they may impract your fertility or pregnancy.
Cervical Cancer Prevention
Cervical cancer is a serious disease, but it can be prevented. Regular pap smear tests and pelvic exams can detect it at its earliest stages, and therefore increase the effectiveness of treatment.
However, there are ways in which you can help prevent cervical cancer. They include:
- limiting your number of sexual partners
- delaying first intercourse
- having regular Pap smear tests
- not smoking
Gardasil, a new cervical cancer vaccine, also known as the HPV vaccine, is also providing newfound hope in the fight against cervical cancer. For more information on Gardasil, click here.