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What Women Need to Know About Cervical Cancer

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Cervical cancer is the third most common gynecologic cancer in the U.S. The American Cancer Society estimates that about 13,800 new cervical cancer cases are diagnosed annually and that over 4,200 women lose their battle with the disease each year. Fortunately, if detected early, cervical cancer is one of the most treatable forms of cancer. Every woman needs to understand the risks of cervical cancer, how to minimize their likelihood of developing the disease, how to recognize symptoms, and when to get help.

What is Cervical Cancer?

Cervical cancer occurs in the cells of the cervix, the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina.

What Causes Cervical Cancer?

While it is unknown what causes cervical cancer, it is known that some strains of the sexually transmitted infection human papillomavirus (HPV) can play a role in its development. For some, when exposed to HPV, the immune system is not able to protect the body from harm. As a result, the virus survives for years, ultimately causing some cervical cells to mutate into cancer cells. If untreated, cervical cancer can metastasize, or spread to other areas, including the bladder, vagina, rectum, liver, or lungs, making it significantly more challenging to treat.

There are two main types of cervical cancers: squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma.

  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma – 90 percent of cervical cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. This type of cancer develops in the exocervix (the outer part of the cervix that a doctor can see during a speculum exam)
  • Adenocarcinomas – This form develops from the mucus-producing gland cells of the endocervix.

Other forms of cancer that most often develop in other parts of the body can also develop in the cervix, including melanoma, sarcoma, and lymphoma.

Who is at Risk of Developing Cervical Cancer?

All women are at risk for cervical cancer; however, it most often occurs in women over age 30. Other cervical cancer risk factors include:

  • Having many sexual partners, which can increase the risk of contracting HPV
  • Becoming sexually active at an early age
  • Contracting other sexually transmitted infections including chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis and HIV/AIDS, as they increase one’s risk of contracting HPV
  • A weakened immune system
  • Smoking
  • In utero exposure to the miscarriage prevention drug diethylstilbestrol (DES) that was given to some pregnant women in the 1950s

Signs and Symptoms of Cervical Cancer

For many women, particularly in the early stages of the disease’s development, there are no symptoms. When cervical cancer grows and begins to affect nearby tissue, symptoms may include:

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding, (e.g., after vaginal sex, after menopause, between periods, heavy menstruation, or after douching)
  • An unusual, watery vaginal discharge that contains blood and may have a foul odor
  • Pain during sex
  • Pelvic pain
  • Swelling of the legs
  • Difficulty urinating or with bowel movements
  • The presence of blood in the urine

How to Minimize Your Risk of Cervical Cancer

One of the best things women can do to minimize their risk of cervical cancer is to obtain regular pap tests from their doctor. Also, by preventing HPV, women can reduce their risk of cervical cancer. Women should practice safe sex, receive regular screening tests, and receive the HPV vaccine.

When to Get Help

If you are experiencing any of the signs of cervical cancer, talk to your doctor. While a different condition might be causing the symptoms, you should be examined by a physician who can identify the cause of your symptoms and help you begin a healing treatment plan.