cancer occurs when abnormal cells develop and spread in the cervix, the lower
part of the uterus. More than 12,000 new cases are diagnosed each year in the
U.S. A unique fact about cervical cancer is that most cases are triggered by a
type of virus. When found early, cervical cancer is highly curable
Symptoms of Cervical Cancer
When cervical cells first become abnormal, there are rarely
any warning signs. As the cancer progresses, symptoms may include:
bleeding between periods
or pain during sex
Top Cause of Cervical Cancer: HPV
The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a
large group of viruses. About 40 types can infect the genital areas, and some
have high risk for cervical cancer. Genital HPV infections usually clear up on
their own. If one becomes chronic, it can cause changes in the cells of the
cervix. And it's these changes that may lead to cancer. Worldwide, over 90% of
cervical cancers are caused by an HPV infection.
infections usually have no symptoms and go away on their own. Some types of the
HPV virus may cause genital warts, but these are not the same strains linked to
cervical cancer. It's important to note that genital warts will not turn into
cancer, even if they are not treated. The dangerous types of HPV can stay in
the body for years without causing any symptoms.
Who Is at Risk for HPV?
HPV is so common that most people who have ever had sex --
both women and men -- will get the virus at some point in life. Because HPV can
linger quietly, it's possible to carry the infection even if it has been years
since you had sex. Condoms can lower your risk of getting HPV, but they do not
fully protect against the virus. HPV is also linked to cancers of the vulva,
vagina, penis, and to anal and oral cancers in both sexes.
How HPV Causes Cervical Cancer
If one of the high-risk strains of HPV lingers in the body,
it can cause abnormal cells to develop in the cervix. These precancerous changes
do not mean that you have cervical cancer. But over time, the abnormal
cells may give way to cancer cells. Once cancer appears, it tends to spread in
the cervix and surrounding areas.
What Else Raises Your Risk?
Hispanic and African-American women have higher rates of
cervical cancer than white women. The risk is also higher in infected women
birth control pills for a long time
HIV positive or have a weakened immune system
Detection: Pap Test
Pap test is one of the great success stories in early detection. A swab of the
cervix can reveal abnormal cells, often before cancer appears. At age 21, women
should start having a Pap test every three years. From age 30 to 65, women who
get both a Pap test and an HPV test can go up to five years between testing.
But women at higher risk may need testing more often, so it's best to check
with your doctor. Skipping tests raises your risk for invasive cervical cancer.
note: You'll still need Pap tests after getting the HPV vaccine because it
doesn't prevent all cervical cancers.
If Your Pap Test Is Abnormal?
If test results show a minor abnormality, you may
need a repeat Pap test. Your doctor may schedule a colposcopy -- an exam with a
lighted magnifying device -- to get a better look at any changes in the
cervical tissue and also take a sample to be examined under a microscope. If
abnormal cells are precancerous, they can then be removed or destroyed.
Treatments are highly successful in preventing precancerous cells from
developing into cancer.
Early Detection: HPV
cases, doctors may offer the option of the HPV DNA test in addition to a Pap
test. This test checks for the presence of high-risk forms of HPV. It may be
used in combination with a Pap test to screen for cervical cancer in women over
30. It may also be recommended for a woman of any age after an abnormal Pap
Diagnosing Cervical Cancer:
A biopsy involves the removal of cervical tissue for
examination in a lab. A pathologist will check the tissue sample for abnormal
changes, precancerous cells, and cancer cells. In most cases, a biopsy takes
place in a doctor's office during a colposcopy. A cone biopsy allows the
pathologist to check for abnormal cells beneath the surface of the cervix, but
this test may require anesthesia.
Stages of Cervical Cancer
Stage 0 describes cancer cells found only on the surface of
the cervix. More invasive cancers are separated into four stages.
Stage I is when the cancer has not spread beyond the cervix.
Stage II means the tumor has spread to the upper part of the
Stage III tumor extends to the lower part of the vagina and
may block urine flow.
Stage IV, the tumor has reached the bladder or rectum, or
cancer cells have spread to other parts of the body and formed new tumors.
If the cancer has not progressed past Stage II, surgery is
usually recommended to remove any tissue that might contain cancer. Typically
this involves a hysterectomy, the removal of the cervix and uterus as well as
some of the surrounding tissue. The surgeon may also remove the fallopian
tubes, ovaries, and lymph nodes near the tumor.
External radiation therapy uses high-energy X-rays to kill
cancer cells in a targeted area. It can also help destroy any remaining cancer
cells after surgery. Internal radiation, or brachytherapy, uses radioactive
material that is inserted into the tumor. Women with cervical cancer are often
treated with a combination of radiation and chemotherapy. Side effects can
include low blood cell counts, feeling tired, upset stomach, nausea, vomiting,
and loose stools.
Chemotherapy uses drugs to reach cancer wherever it is in
the body. When cervical cancer has spread to distant organs, chemotherapy may
be the main treatment option. Depending on the specific drugs and dosages, side
effects may include fatigue, bruising easily, hair loss, nausea, vomiting, and
loss of appetite.
Coping With Cancer Treatments
Cancer treatments may make you tired or uninterested in
food. But it's important to take in enough calories to maintain a healthy
weight. Check with a dietitian for tips on eating well during cancer treatment.
Staying active is also important. Gentle exercise can increase your energy
while reducing nausea and stress. Check with your doctor to find out which
activities are appropriate for you.
Cervical Cancer and Fertility
Treatment for cervical cancer often involves removing the
uterus and may also involve removing the ovaries, ruling out a future pregnancy.
However, if the cancer is caught very early, you still may be able to have
children after surgical treatment. A procedure called a radical trachelectomy
can remove the cervix and part of the vagina while leaving the majority of the
Survival Rates for Cervical Cancer
The odds of surviving cervical cancer are tied to how early
it's found. Almost 68% of women overall will survive for at least five years
after diagnosis. But statistics don't predict how well any one individual will
respond to treatment.
Vaccine to Help Prevent Cervical
Vaccines are now available to ward off the two types of HPV
most strongly linked to cervical cancer. Both Cervarix and Gardasil require
three doses over a six-month period. Studies suggest the vaccines are effective
at preventing chronic infections with the two types of HPV that cause 70% of
cervical cancers. Gardasil also protects against two types of HPV that
cause genital wart
Who Should Get the HPV Vaccine?
The vaccines are only used to prevent, not treat, HPV
infection. They are most effective if administered before an individual becomes
sexually active. The CDC recommends boys and girls get an HPV vaccine series
when they are 11 or 12.