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What Is Cervical Cancer?
The cervix is the lower part of the uterus, where it contacts the vagina. Cancer of the uterine cervix affects over 12,000 women each year in the U.S. Most cases of cervical cancer are actually caused by an infectious agent, the human papillomavirus. It is highly curable when detected early enough.
Cervical Cancer Symptoms
At the very early stages of cervical cancer, there are usually no symptoms or signs. As the cancer grows, symptoms can include abnormal vaginal bleeding. Abnormal vaginal bleeding is bleeding that occurs between periods, during sex, or after menopause. Pain during sex and vaginal discharge are other possible symptoms.
HPV: Top Cause of Cervical Cancer
The human papillomaviruses (HPVs) are a large group of viruses, about 40 of which can infect the human genital tract. Some HPVs are known to cause cervical cancers, while others cause genital warts. Most genital HPV infections go away on their own, but when they become chronic, they can cause precancerous and cancerous changes in the cells that line the uterine cervix. Over 90% of cervical cancers are caused by HPV infection.
The types of HPVs that cause genital warts are different from those that cause cervical cancer. Genital warts are not precancerous lesions and will not develop into cervical cancer. The “high-risk” or potentially cancer causing types of HPV can stay in the body for years without causing symptoms. Most infections, however, go away on their own and do not cause cellular changes.
Who Is at Risk for HPV?
HPV infection is extremely common. In fact, most men and women who have ever had sex will contract the infection at some point in life. In some people, the infection persists for years, even if they are not sexually active. Condoms may lower the risk of acquiring the infection, but they are not 100% effective. HPV is also known to cause cancers in other areas of the body, including the penis, anal area, vulva, vagina, and oral cavity.
How Does HPV Cause Cervical Cancer
High-risk HPVs lead to cancer because they produce changes in the cells of the cervix. These are initially precancerous changes that can be recognized with screening tests. With time, the precancerous cells can develop into cancer cells. After cancer has developed it spreads within the cervix and eventually to surrounding areas.
Other Risk Factors for Cervical Cancer
Women of Hispanic or African American ethnicity have a higher risk of cervical cancer than Caucasian women. Other factors that increase the risk of cervical cancer include:
- Long-term use of oral contraceptive pills
- Having many children
- Having HIV or a weakened immune system
Pap Test for Early Detection
The Pap test has been a success in preventing many cases of cervical cancer because it is able to detect abnormal cells often before they turn into cancer cells. A swab is taken of the cervix that is then examined for abnormal cells. Women should have a Pap test every 3 years starting at age 21. From age 30 to 65, women can go up to 5 years between Pap tests if they get both a Pap and HPV test. If you are at higher risk, you may need more frequent testing. Skipping tests increases the risk of cervical cancer. Even if you have received the HPV vaccine, you still need Pap tests, because the vaccine does not protect against all the types of HPV that can cause cancer.
What If Your Pap Test Results Are Abnormal?
If there are minor changes seen on the cells in a Pap smear, the doctor may order a repeat test. He or she may also suggest a colposcopy, an examination that looks at the cervix through a magnifying device, or a biopsy of the cervix. Abnormal cells can be destroyed before they turn into cancer cells, and this type of treatment is highly effective in preventing cervical cancer.
HPV DNA Test for Early Detection
Testing for the genetic material (DNA) of the HPV viruses is a diagnostic test that can be done in addition to the Pap test. This test identifies the high-risk forms of HPV that are associated with cancer. The test may also be used in women who have had abnormal Pap test results.
Biopsy for Diagnosing Cervical Cancer
A biopsy is the removal of a small piece of tissue for examination in the laboratory. The examination can identify the presence of precancerous changes or cancer cells. Most biopsies can be done in the doctor's office. A cone biopsy is a larger biopsy that removes the area around the cervical opening. It can also show the spread of abnormal cells beneath the surface of the cervix.
Cervical Cancer Stages
The stage of cervical cancer refers to the extent to which it has spread. Stage 0 means that the cancer cells are found on the surface of the cervix, and stage I means the cancer is localized to the cervix. Spread to the upper part of the vagina signals a stage II cancer. Stage III tumors extent to the lower vagina, and in Stage IV, the tumor has spread to the bladder or rectum, or to distant sites in the body.
For cancers up to stage II, surgery is usually done to remove the areas of cancer. This generally means that the uterus is removed (hysterectomy) along with the surrounding tissue. The ovaries, Fallopian tubes, and lymph nodes in the area may also be removed.
External radiation therapy can be used to destroy cancer cells that may remain after surgery. Internal radiation (brachytherapy) involves placement of radioactive material inside the tumor itself to destroy cancer cells. Radiation therapy is often used together with chemotherapy to treat women with cervical cancer. Side effects of radiation therapy can include nausea, vomiting, tiredness, and low blood cell counts.
Chemotherapy may be the main treatment if cervical cancer has spread to distant sites in the body. Chemotherapy is the use of toxic drugs to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy also has side effects that can include fatigue, hair loss, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, and easy bruising.
Coping With Cancer Treatments
Although cancer treatments can make you lose your appetite, it’s important to maintain good nutrition and keep up a healthy weight. Being active is also helpful since exercise can increase your energy levels and reduce stress. Your doctor can help you decide what kind of activity is best for you.
Cervical Cancer and Fertility
Since treatment for cervical cancer can involve removing the uterus and ovaries, future pregnancy may not be possible. However, if the cancer is caught early, there may be an option for future pregnancy with a treatment known as a radical trachelectomy. In this procedure, the cervix and part of the vagina are removed, but the majority of the uterus is left intact.
Cervical Cancer Survival Rates
Surviving cervical cancer depends upon the stage, or extent of spread, at the time it is found. Based upon women diagnosed between 2000 and 2002, 5-year survival rates ranged from 93% for cancers detected early to 15% for cancers that were widespread. But treatments and outlook are constantly improving, and these odds may be better today. And no statistics can predict exactly how one person will respond to treatment.
Cervical Cancer Vaccine
Vaccines are available to prevent infection with the types of HPV most likely to cause cancers. Cervarix and Gardasil are two vaccines that require three shots over a 6-month time period. Gardasil also protects against the two types of HPV that most commonly cause genital warts.
Who Should Get the HPV Vaccine?
The vaccines do not treat existing HPV infection, but they may prevent it. For best results, they should be given before the individual becomes sexually active. The CDC recommends giving girls the three-vaccine series at age 11 or 12. Girls and women aged 13 to 26 can receive a catch-up vaccine.