Cervical cancer is a common kind of cancer in women. It can often be treated successfully.
WHAT IS IT?
Cervical cancer (cancer of the cervix) occurs when the abnormal cells grow on the cervix. The cervix is the small, donut-shaped organ that is the bottom of a woman’s uterus and the top of her vagina. The hole in the middle of the cervix allows menstrual fluid to flow out, sperm to get into the uterus, and babies to be born.
It is important to know how sexual activity relates to cervical cancer. Human Papillomavirus (or HPV) is a Sexually Transmitted Infection. Some strains of HPV are harmless and cause no symptoms. Some strains can cause genital warts, and some strains of HPV can lead to cervical cancer.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS?
Dysplasia (abnormal cells on the surface of the cervix) often has no symptoms, but can develop into cervical cancer. Symptoms of cervical cancer can include:
o Vaginal bleeding (not during a menstrual period)
o Unusual vaginal discharge
o Pelvic pain
o Pain during intercourse
If a woman has any of these symptoms, she should contact her health care provider right away.
There are a number of tests that can be used to diagnose both cancer and pre-cancerous cells in the cervix. The best thing a woman can do for her cervical health is to get regular Pap tests. These tests are performed as part of a woman’s annual pelvic exam. They’re quick, easy, relatively inexpensive, and a lot of insurance policies cover them. To read more about the Pap test, click here.
If a woman’s Pap test has abnormal results, her health care provider will order further testing. This may be a repeat Pap test or another kind of diagnostic procedure. The clinician may order a Schiller test, where the cervix is coated with an iodine solution; healthy cells turn brown and abnormal cells turn white or yellow. Or the clinician may perform a colposcopy, which allows her/him to look at the cervix with a special microscope. If the results of the colposcopy are abnormal, the clinician may decide that a cervical biopsy is necessary. A cervical biopsy involves removing a small sample of cervical tissue for examination under a microscope and is the only way to determine for sure whether or not cells are cancerous.
HOW IS IT TREATED?
Precisely how a cervical cancer is treated depends on the stage of the disease, the size of the tumor, and the age and physical condition of the woman. Some cervical cancers are treated with surgery (to remove the cancerous cells). Some are treated with radiation therapy (which uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells). Some are treated with chemotherapy (using strong drugs to kill the cancer cells). Some cancers may require a combination of these methods.
HOW CAN I PROTECT MYSELF FROM IT?
While there are some risk factors for cervical cancer that women cannot control (like age and family history), there are a number of things that they can do to reduce their risk:
o Get regular Pap tests beginning at age 21 or first sexual intercourse
o Inform their health care provider of a family history of cervical cancer
o Don’t smoke
o Limit the number of sexual partners
o Don’t douche
o Use condoms for every act of intercourse – oral, anal, and vaginal
Some research has indicated that the sooner a woman has intercourse after she menstruates for the first time, the higher her risk of cervical cancer.