Cervical cancer, also known as a “silent killer”, continues to affect women throughout the world.
With its increasing prevalence, it becomes more important to understand the disease and work on the steps we may take to improve our chances of beating it.
- Cervical cancer can affect women of all ages but it most commonly occurs in women over age 30.
- In 2016, as per as estimate 13,000 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer in US. However, more than 4,000 women couldn’t survive.
- Although the number of cases continue to decline over the past few years, thanks to the Pap screening. However, it still ranks as the second most common type of cancer in women all over the world.
What is Cervical Cancer?
As we all know, when the growth of our body cells becomes out of control, it leads to cancer.
The name of cancer always has its origin from the part of body where it starts to develop, even if it spreads to the other parts of body.
In the same manner, when the site of cancer development is cervix, we call it as cervical cancer.
The types of cervical cancer include:
- Squamous cell carcinoma (the most common type which forms in the cervix lining)
- Adenocarcinoma (develops in the mucus producing cells)
- Mixed carcinoma (has features of the other two types)
Cervical Cancer Symptoms
The signs of cervical cancer don’t show during early stages. Therefore, you might not be able to realize that you have the disease until it reaches late stages.
The initial symptoms of cervical cancer you may experience include:
- Pain during sexual intercourse
- Unusual vaginal bleeding (like between periods, after pelvic exam or after menopause)
- Unusual vaginal discharge
After the cancer spreads to the other parts of body, it may cause:
- Pain in pelvis
- Swelling in legs
- Trouble peeing
- Body aches
- Kidney failure
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
Cervical Cancer Causes
How can you get cervical cancer?
The most common cause is human papillomavirus (HPV) which is sexually transmitted.
Moreover, this is the same virus that becomes the cause of genital warts.
Out of 100 various strains for HPV, only some certain types lead to cervical cancer.
The two most common types include:
Moreover, even if the cancer-causing strain infects you, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll get cervical cancer.
Your immune system works on eliminating the majority of HPV infections.
The other cancers that may develop because of HPV include:
- Vaginal cancer
- Rectal cancer
- Vulvar cancer
- Anal cancer
- Penile cancer
- Throat cancer
What increases the risk of cervical cancer?
Other than HPV, there are several factors that are likely to increase your risk of developing the cancer.
- Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
- Having a family history
- Having many sexual partners
- Weak immune system
- Taking contraceptives or birth control pills
- Intake of diet low in vegetables and fruits
- Having 3 full-term pregnancies
- Getting pregnant at an early age
Moreover, if you have any one or more of these risk factors, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are going to develop cervical cancer.
However, you may reduce the chances of developing complications by getting regular screenings from time to time.
Cervical Cancer Stages
The stage of cancer tells if the cancer has spread or not and if it has, how far has it spread.
Identifying the stage of your cancer will help your doctor to develop the right treatment plan for you.
At this stage, the tumor is small. It may have invaded and spread to the lymph nodes.
However, it hasn’t yet spread to the other parts of your body.
The tumor has become larger. It may have spread to the outside of cervix and uterus or to the lymph nodes.
However, it hasn’t yet reached the other parts of your body.
The cancer, in this stage, spreads to the lower part of pelvis or vagina.
Moreover, it may also be blocking ureters. Ureters are the tubes responsible for carrying urine from kidneys to the bladder.
However, it still hasn’t spread to your other body parts.
This is the stage where cancer spreads outside of your pelvis to other organs of your body such as, bones, lungs, or liver.
In case, the cancer is caught during its early stages, when it hasn’t spread yet and is limited to the cervix, the five-year rate of survival is 92%.
However, once it spreads further within the pelvic region, the five-year survival rate reduces to 56%.
Moreover, if the cancer spreads to the other distant parts of body, the survival rate drops down to 17%.
Therefore, getting cervical cancer screening done on regular basis to avoid the progression of cancer is really important.
When it is caught at an early stage, it is very much treatable.
Cervical Cancer Test
For the purpose of diagnosing this cancer, doctors use the test called Pap smear.
To begin with the Pap tests, your doctor will collect a sample of cells from the cervical surface.
Furthermore, if such changes are found, your doctor will step ahead towards the procedure of colposcopy.
This procedure involves examination of your cervix. Your doctor might also take a biopsy (a sample of the cells of your cervix).
As per a recommendation, you should follow the screening schedule as mentioned below:
- For women of age 21 to 29: Pap smear once every 3 years
- For women of age 30 to 65: Pap smear once every 3 years, high-risk HPV every 5 years or both these tests every 5 years.
Cervical Cancer Treatment
It is very much treatable if you identify it during early stages.
- radiation therapy
- targeted therapy
Sometimes, these procedures work better in combination. Your doctor will guide you to go for the treatment that would work best for you.
Radiations use high-energy X-ray beams to kill the cancerous cells.
It can be delivered in two ways:
- Outside the body through a machine
- Inside the body by placing a metal tube in the uterus or vagina
Chemotherapy involves the usage of drugs for the purpose of killing cancer cells.
This treatment goes in cycles. You’ll get breaks in between the treatment process to give your body enough time to recover.
Surgery also serves the purpose of removing as much cancer cells as possible.
Moreover, in some cases, doctors may simply remove the cervical area containing cancer cells.
For the cancer that has spread to the distant body parts, surgical procedures may involve removing the cervix or other organs in pelvic region.
Depending upon the extent of spread, your doctor would recommend the most suitable procedure for you.
Some of the surgical procedures include:
Another treatment procedure that works differently in comparison to radiation therapy or chemotherapy is targeted therapy.
It uses a drug called Bevacizumab (Avastin) which directly blocks the growth of blood vessels that aid the cancer grow further and survive.
This drug often works in combination with chemotherapy.
Cervical Cancer Prevention
Like we discussed earlier, the easiest preventive measure against cervical cancer is to get regular screenings done.
Following the screening schedule for pap smear and hrHPV can save you from a lot of complications and there are no side effects.
Screening helps identifying the precancerous cells, so that you can plan on eliminating them before they turn into cancerous cells.
Since the most common cause of cervical cancer is HPV. Therefore, getting vaccination beforehand can save you big time.
To see more details about HPV and its vaccination visit our blog post, HPV: Vaccine and Symptoms.
Some other ways that may help you reducing the risk of developing the cancer include:
- limiting the number of sexual partners you have
- always use protection or other barrier methods during intercourse
An abnormal pap smear result indicates you have precancerous abnormal cells in your cervix.
We have had a detailed overview of cervical cancer starting from its meaning and types to its prevention.
Still, if you want to add something or have any queries, leave your comments in the section below.
We would be pleased to hear your feedback.