Breast cancer isn’t the only disease affecting women everywhere. January is Cervical Health Awareness Month. Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that impacts women, most frequently diagnosed between the ages of 35 and 44. Per the American Cancer Society, about 13,170 new cases of invasive cervical cancer are diagnosed every year, and 4,250 people will lose their lives to the disease that originates in the cervix, which connects the vagina to the upper part of the uterus.
The good news is that cervical pre-cancer is diagnosed much more than cancer itself, thanks to advancements in screening methods—and what used to be the leading cause of death for women in the United States is no longer in the top three.
Here is everything you need to know about cervical cancer.
How Do You Get Cervical Cancer?
Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV)—a common virus that can be passed from one person to another during sex. As cases of HPV have decreased, due to the HPV vaccination, and screening methods have improved, due to the Pap smear, cases of cervical cancer have dramatically decreased.
Because cervical cancer is caused by HPV, detecting the virus is critical in preventing the disease. “The majority of HPV infections are transient; however, if not cleared by your immune system, the HPV can replicate and cause cell damage leading to precancerous or cancerous lesions,” explains Angel Lightner, DO, OB/GYN Resident Physician.
She explains that risk factors for cervical cancer include:
- early age of first sexual activity
- multiple sexual partners
- a history of other sexually transmitted infections
- low socioeconomic status with limited Pap screening
- and immunosuppression such as HIV or women with organ transplants.
Signs and Symptoms
The unfortunate thing about cervical cancer is that there are very few reliable early signs or symptoms, according to Steve Vasilev MD, a gynecologic oncologist and medical director of Integrative Gynecologic Oncology at Providence Saint John’s Health Center and Professor at John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, CA.
“When abnormal bleeding or discharge occurs, it is often already associated with a significant size cervical cancer,” he explains. “If pain is present, that may mean an even larger cancer.”
Monique May, MD, adds that unusual bleeding or spotting as a result of cervical cancer will often be noticed after sexual intercourse. Pain can also occur. “These symptoms are caused by abnormal cells that are more fragile or are what we call ‘friable,’ meaning they bleed very easily compared to normal healthy tissues,” she says.
Dr. Vazilev does point out, however, is that it is possible that some early cancers or even pre-cancers (called dysplasia) can bleed or produce these symptoms too.
RELATED: Symptoms That May Actually Be Cancer.
The Importance of Screening
Given the lack of clear early signs, and because the symptoms that do exist can often be commonly also seen with other gynecologic conditions, the best way to identify cervical cancer is through routine screening, points out Sangini S. Sheth, MD, MPH, a Yale Medicine Ob/Gyn. “The vast majority of cervical cancer can be prevented with adequate screening that can help detect pre-cancer,” she explains. “When detected, pre-cancers of the cervix can most often be successfully treated before they develop into cervical cancer.”
Routine Pap smears and HPV screening is the best way to do this — and getting checked earlier rather than later is vital.
“The reason for Pap test and HPV screening is to detect cervical pre-cancer before it becomes necessary to treat with a hysterectomy,” explains Dr. Vasilev. “Because symptoms are often absent with early pre-cancers, screening on a regular basis is extremely important.”
How To Decrease Your Risk of Cervical Cancer
Dr. Lightner suggests the following to decrease your risk of cervical cancer:
- See your Gynecologist annually for a routine pelvic exam
- Get your Paps! Pap smear screening generally begins at 21 years of age and is completed every three years for women ages 21-29 years old, and every five years with HPV testing ages 30+ years old
- Condom use
- Receive the HPV vaccine series, both men and women! Countries with higher rates of HPV vaccinated individuals have observed a significant decline in cancer-causing HPV virus infections
Treatment and Prognosis
The American Cancer Society explains that the treatment of cervical cancer is stage-dependent. For the earliest stages of cervical cancer, when the cancer is localized in the cervix, surgery, or radiation combined with chemo may be used. For later stages, the primary treatment is often radiation combined with chemo. Chemo (by itself) is commonly used to treat advanced cervical cancer.