Cervical cancer is a disease in which cancer cells form in the cervix or the lower part of a woman’s uterus. The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 13,000 new cases of cervical cancer will be diagnosed this year in the United States, and more than 4,200 women will die from the disease this year. While cervical cancer was once a leading cause of cancer death for women in the mid-1950s, the number of deaths has decreased dramatically due to better testing, early diagnosis and treatment.
Cervical Cancer Risk Factors
- Human papillomaviruses (HPVs) – a group of viruses passed from person to person through sexual contact. Some types of HPV can cause changes to the cells in the cervix.
- Age – cervical cancer most often occurs in women over the age of 40.
- Weakened immune system – women with HIV or taking drugs that suppress the immune system have a higher-than-average risk of developing cervical cancer.
- Sexual history – women who have had many sexual partners or have had intercourse with a man who has had many sexual partners may be at a higher risk of developing cervical cancer because they have a higher risk of HPV infection.
- Smoking cigarettes – women with an HPV infection who smoke have a higher than average risk of cervical cancer than women with HPV infection who do not smoke.
- Birth Control – using birth control pills for more than 5 years may increase the risk of cervical cancer among women with HPV infection.
- Child Birth – multiple child births can increase the chance of developing cervical cancer.
Signs and Symptoms of Cervical Cancer
Early changes in the cervix may not cause pain or other symptoms; however, when the disease gets worse, women may notice:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding
- Increased vaginal discharge
- Pelvic pain
- Pain during intercourse
Women who experience any of these symptoms should consult their healthcare providers.
Cervical Cancer Screening
Nearly all cervical cancers are caused by HPV.
The most effective test used for screening for cervical cancer is a Pap test. A Pap test is performed in a physician’s office or clinic as part of a pelvic exam. The physician or nurse scrapes a sample of cells from the cervix with a wooden scraper or small brush, and then smears the cells on a glass slide which is sent to a pathology lab for examination. Experts recommend women have Pap smears at least once every three years, beginning three years after first intercourse or age 21, whichever comes first.
The HPV test checks for Human Papillomavirus (HPV). The test can be done at the same time as the Pap test, with the same swab or a second swab. A Pap test plus an HPV test (called co-testing) is the preferred way to find early cervical cancers or pre-cancers in women 30 and older.
Cervical Cancer Staging
If cancer is found, a physician will need to determine the progression of the cancer. This classification, called staging, allows the healthcare provider to properly identify a treatment plan and to determine the prognosis. All cancers are staged on a roman numeral scale, of I-IV(1-4), where the higher stage represents more advanced cancer.
Cervical Cancer Diagnosis
If a woman has a Pap test result that suggests precancerous cells or cancer of the cervix, her healthcare provider may recommend additional testing to confirm diagnosis including:
- biospy or removal of tissue to look for precancerous or cancer cells
- colposcopy or use of a colposcope (bright light with magnifying lens) to look at the cervix
Cervical Cancer Treatment
There are many treatment options for cervical cancer, including chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery. Each method may be used alone, or in combination.
- Surgery treats the cancer by removing the cancerous tissue. The type of surgery required depends on the stage of the cancer. Very early stage cervical cancer may be treated by removing cancerous areas without removing entire organs. Later stage cervical cancers may require removal of the cervix and the uterus, called a total hysterectomy, or removal of the cervix, uterus and part of the vagina, called a radical hysterectomy. With either type of hysterectomy, both the fallopian tubes and ovaries may be removed.
- Radiation therapy is the use of high-energy rays to kill cancer cells in the treatment area. It is primarily administered from a machine outside the body, however it can be delivered internally through thin tubes placed in the vagina.
- Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. The drugs are administered orally or infused directly into the bloodstream. They travel throughout the body reaching cancer cells that may have spread into other areas of the body.
Physicians at Comprehensive Cancer Centers provide customized treatment plans for patients diagnosed with cervical cancer. If you or a loved one has been diagnosed, contact Comprehensive at 702-952-3350.