Cervical cancer occurs when the cells of the cervix grow abnormally and invade other tissues and organs of the body. When it is invasive, this cancer affects the deeper tissues of the cervix and may have spread to other parts of the body (metastasis), most notably the lungs, liver, bladder, vagina, and rectum.
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However, cervical cancer is slow-growing, so its progression through precancerous changes provides opportunities for prevention, early detection, and treatment.
1Symptoms of Cervical Cancer
When cervical cells first become abnormal, there are rarely any warning signs. As the cancer progresses, symptoms may include:
- Unusual vaginal discharge
- Vaginal bleeding between periods
- Bleeding after menopause
- Bleeding or pain during sex
2Top Cause of Cervical Cancer: HPV
The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a large group of viruses. About 40 types can infect the genital areas, and some have high risk for cervical cancer. Genital HPV infections usually clear up on their own. If one becomes chronic, it can cause changes in the cells of the cervix. And it’s these changes that may lead to cancer. Worldwide, over 90% of cervical cancers are caused by an HPV infection.
3Who Is at Risk for HPV?
HPV is so common that most people who have ever had sex — both women and men — will get the virus at some point in life. Because HPV can linger quietly, it’s possible to carry the infection even if it has been years since you had sex. Condoms can lower your risk of getting HPV, but they do not fully protect against the virus. HPV is also linked to cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, and to anal and oral cancers in both sexes.
4How HPV Causes Cervical Cancer
If one of the high-risk strains of HPV lingers in the body, it can cause abnormal cells to develop in the cervix. These precancerous changes do not mean that you have cervical cancer. But over time, the abnormal cells may give way to cancer cells. Once cancer appears, it tends to spread in the cervix and surrounding areas.
5What Else Raises Your Risk?
6Early Detection: Pap Test
The Pap test is one of the great success stories in early detection. A swab of the cervix can reveal abnormal cells, often before cancer appears. At age 21, women should start having a Pap test every three years. From age 30 to 65, women who get both a Pap test and an HPV test can go up to five years between testing. But women at higher risk may need testing more often, so it’s best to check with your doctor. Skipping tests raises your risk for invasive cervical cancer.
Of note: You’ll still need Pap tests after getting the HPV vaccine because it doesn’t prevent all cervical cancers.
7Early Detection: HPV DNA Test
In some cases, doctors may offer the option of the HPV DNA test in addition to a Pap test. This test checks for the presence of high-risk forms of HPV. It may be used in combination with a Pap test to screen for cervical cancer in women over 30. It may also be recommended for a woman of any age after an abnormal Pap test result.
8Stages of Cervical Cancer
Stage 0 describes cancer cells found only on the surface of the cervix. More invasive cancers are separated into four stages. Stage I – the cancer has grown beyond the cervix and uterus, but hasn’t spread to the walls of the pelvis or the lower part of the vagina. Stage II -the cancer has spread to the lower part of the vagina or the walls of the pelvis. A Stage III tumor extends to the lower part of the vagina and may block urine flow. It hasn’t spread to lymph nodes. In Stage IV – this is the most advanced stage of cervical cancer. The cancer has spread to nearby organs or other parts of the body.
9Cervical Cancer and Fertility
Treatment for cervical cancer often involves removing the uterus and may also involve removing the ovaries, ruling out a future pregnancy. However, if the cancer is caught very early, you still may be able to have children after surgical treatment. A procedure called a radical trachelectomy can remove the cervix and part of the vagina while leaving the majority of the uterus intact.
10Survival Rates for Cervical Cancer
11Vaccine to Help Prevent Cervical Cancer
Vaccines are now available to ward off the two types of HPV most strongly linked to cervical cancer. Both Cervarix and Gardasil require three doses over a six-month period. Studies suggest the vaccines are effective at preventing chronic infections with the two types of HPV that cause 70% of cervical cancers. Gardasil also protects against two types of HPV that cause genital warts. Gardasil-9 has been proven as effective as Gardasil for the prevention of diseases caused by the four shared HPV types (6, 11, 16, and 18). It also protects against five other strains of HPV virus (31, 33, 45, 52, and 58).
12Who Should Get the HPV Vaccine?
The vaccines are only used to prevent, not treat, HPV infection. They are most effective if administered before an individual becomes sexually active. The CDC recommends boys and girls get an HPV vaccine series when they are 9 to 26.
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