Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer among women today. It is also one of the leading causes of cancer death in women, but its mortality rate has dropped significantly in the last four decades. Here is everything you need to know about cervical cancer.
What is cervical cancer?
All types of cancer are caused by malignant cells multiplying at an alarming rate and growing out of control. Once it does, cancer can spread to other parts of the body, a process in pathology called “metastasize.” It may become more difficult to tamper cancer growth once it has spread.
That being said, cervical cancer is the growth of abnormal cells in the cervix or the lower portion of the uterus. The cervix has two parts, each with its own corresponding cells. The top part of the cervix nearest to the uterus is called endocervix and has glandular cells. Meanwhile, the lower part most adjacent to the birth canal or the vagina is called ectocervix or exocervix consisting squamous cells. Both the squamous cells and the glandular cells meet halfway at a point called transformation zone.
Majority of cervical cancer incidences begin in the transformation zone. However, the cells do not immediately turn into malignant cells; they display pre-cancerous changes that can easily be detected by doctors. These changes can range from dysplasia, squamous intraepithelial lesion, and cervical intraepithelial neoplasia. A Pap test can detect all of these, and as such, the cells are addressed before they develop into cancerous cells.
Most these pre-cancerous cells go away on their own. In some women, however, they do develop invasive or true cervical cancers.
What causes cervical cancer?
Many of cervical cancer cases are caused by a common virus called human papillomavirus (HPV). It is a sexually transmitted virus that can cause genital warts and cervical cancer, among others. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “79 million Americans, most in their late teens and early 20s, are infected with HPV.”
Majority of HPV cases are asymptomatic, meaning to say that there is no manifestation of symptoms. However, even an asymptomatic patient can still be contagious. The virus is spread through vaginal, oral, or anal sex with an HPV carrier. If left untreated, HPV can cause genital warts and cancer.
Thankfully, you can protect yourself against HPV. One of the ways through which you can do so is by getting vaccinated. A vaccine is available even for people as young as 11 to 12 years old. Likewise, women can get a vaccination against cervical cancer.
What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?
Like most diseases, the symptoms vary from patient to patient. However, some of the more consistent symptoms of the disease are as follows:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding – This refers to bleeding that is not associated with your period. This could be bleeding after sexual intercourse, in between your period, or even after you’ve had menopause.
- Pain – One of the telltale signs of cervical cancer is an acute pain when having or after sexual intercourse, as well as pain in the pelvis or lower belly. Some women who have already gone through menopause may find themselves having to deal with vaginal bleeding again.
- Getting vaginal discharges – Vaginal discharges are common among women; however, the quality and the smell of the discharge depends on where you are in your cycle. If you find yourself getting unusual vaginal discharges, particularly those that are accompanied by foul smell or pain, then you should get it checked up.
Aside from the ones mentioned above, there may be other symptoms of cervical cancer. The rule of the thumb, therefore, is that if you feel like something in your body is not normal, then have it checked immediately.
How is it diagnosed?
In many kinds of cancer, early diagnosis is enough to curb the disease once and for all. Such is the case for cervical cancer.
The diagnostic for cervical cancer is very straightforward. During routine annual exams, women are asked if they want to have a pelvic exam. One of the exams given to them is the Pap test, where a small instrument is inserted into the vagina. This allows the doctor to scrape a small sample of the cells from the surface of the cervix. The specimen is then sent to a laboratory.
Don’t be surprised if your Pap test says that you have an “infection.” Infections are common in women, particularly those who are taking hormonal pills. What you should be looking for are cells that are indicative of cervical cancer, which will then be displayed on the results.
How is it treated?
Like many cancers, cervical cancer is primarily treated with surgery and augmented by chemotherapy and radiotherapy. A hysterectomy, or the surgical removal of a woman’s uterus, means that the woman cannot have children in the future. However, not all cases of cervical cancer require removal of the uterus, particularly if it is diagnosed early on.
Another surgery that is often common with cervical cancer is the removal of pelvic lymph nodes to prevent it from spreading to other lymph nodes in the body. A doctor may also recommend the removal of one or two fallopian tubes, as well as the ovaries.
Can it be prevented?
As mentioned in the first part of the article, cervical cancer is one of the most preventable cancers today. The HPV vaccine is recommended for those under the age of 26, as this can protect the person from almost all strains of HPV that can cause cervical cancer.
Another way to prevent cervical cancer is by having regular Pap tests. Pap tests are almost always able to detect abnormal cancer cells in the cervix, which means that the likelihood of it developing into full-blown cancer will be prevented.
Cervical cancer is thankfully a disease that most women can avoid, provided they go through routine checkups and tests. It is imperative that you take charge of your health and do what you can to protect it. If you have been diagnosed with cervical cancer, contact us or complete our online form for treatment recommendations.