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What is Cervical Cancer?

Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the cells of a woman’s cervix. Two types of cells cover two parts of the cervix. Glandular cells cover the endocervix, which is closest to the uterus. Squamous cells cover the ectocervix, near the vagina. Usually the healthy cervical cells make gradual changes that later turns to cancer. Highly sensitive and specific molecular tests are now available to identify DNA from high-risk HPV types in cervical specimens. HPV DNA testing can help to determine whether a woman needs further medical attention following a borderline or ambiguous Pap test result.

What are Some Symptoms of Cervical Cancer?

In fact, most women don’t experience any symptoms until the cancer becomes invasive. When cervical cancer invades nearby tissue, some of the most common symptoms are:

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding – Having longer or heavier menstrual periods than usual.
    This includes bleeding after having vaginal intercourse, or after you have gone through menopause.
  • Unusual vaginal discharge – This may happen between your periods or after menopause. The discharge may include some blood.
  • Pain during vaginal intercourse – Even without bleeding or discharge, vaginal pain may be a sign of cervical cancer.

What Causes Cervical Cancer?

For many years researchers, have suspected that cervical cancer was transmitted through sexual contact. Later in the 1990’s research found this theory to be true. We now know that the biggest risk factor for cervical cancer is human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. HPV is a group of more than 100 related viruses. Some of them cause warts called papilloma. The HPV virus can infect cells in several areas of the body, including the skin and the lining of the genitals, anus, mouth, and throat. Like other sexually transmitted diseases HPV can be spread from person to person through skin-to-skin contact, as well as vaginal, anal, or oral sex-contact.

Additional facts about HPV:

There are more than 100 types of HPV, 30-40 of which are sexually transmitted. Of these, at least 15 are high-risk HPV strains that can cause cervical cancer. The others cause no symptoms or genital warts. Up to 80 percent of women will contract HPV in their lifetime. Men get HPV too, but there is no test for them. A healthy immune system will usually clear the HPV virus before there is a symptom, including the high-risk types of HPV. Only a small percentage of women with high-risk HPV develop cervical cancer.

Cervical Cancer Treatment

Cervical cancer can be treated with very high success rate if found in early stages. The types of treatments available are:

Surgery, which is the direct removal of the cancer tissues. The type of surgery needed depends on the location and extent of cervical cancer and whether you want to have children.
Radiation therapy, which uses high-dose X-rays or implants in the vaginal cavity to kill cancer cells. It is used for certain stages of cervical cancer. It is often used in combination with surgery.
Chemoradiation, which is a combination of chemotherapy and radiation. This is often used to treat both early-stage and late-stage cervical cancer.
Chemotherapy, which uses medicines to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be used to treat advanced cervical cancer.

Cervical Cancer Prevalence

Cervical cancer was once one of the most common cancers affecting U.S. women, it now ranks 14th in frequency. Precancerous lesions found by Pap smears can be treated and cured before they develop into cancer, and because cervical cancer is often detected before it advances, the incidence and death rates for this disease are relatively low. However, some geographic areas in the United States still have high rates of cervical cancer incidence and death, due to the lack of access to cervical cancer screenings (view map below). This is also the case in some developing countries where more than 80% of cervical cancer cases are detected.

Cervical Cancer Incident Rates by State, 2013

How to Prevent Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer can be prevented by early detection such as Pap test and HPV test to find pre-cancers before they can turn into invasive cancer. Pre-cancers are treatable. Most invasive cervical cancers are found in women who have not had regular Pap test. Therefore, have regular Pap test is highly recommended for cervical cancer prevention.

  • Quit smoking

Women who smoke cigarettes or who often breathe in secondhand smoke have a higher risk for cervical cell changes that can lead to cervical cancer. Therefore, quit smoking or avoid secondhand smoke may decrease this risk.

  • Get the HPV vaccine

If you are age 26 or younger, you can get the HPV shot. The vaccines Cervarix, Gardasil, and Gardasil 9 protect against the types of human papillomavirus (HPV) that cause cervical cancer. It is recommended for children age 11 or 12, but can be given as early as age 9. For girls who have not already gotten the vaccine, it is recommended up to age 26. For boys who have not already gotten the shot, the vaccine is recommended up to age 21.

  • Reduce your risk of a sexually transmitted infection (STI)

Preventing an STI, including HPV, is easier than treating an infection after it occurs. HPV infection usually doesn’t cause symptoms, so you or your partner may not know that you are infected.

Since the main cause of cervical cancer is HPV infection, practice safe sex and get a HPV vaccine are recommended for cervical cancer prevention.

Last edited on January 18, 2017