All you need to know about Cervical Cancer
In its early stages, cervical cancer typically does not cause symptoms. It may be detected on Pap screening and subsequent testing even before symptoms develop.
What are the symptoms and signs of cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer may not produce any symptoms or signs. In particular, early stage cervical cancers, like precancerous changes, typically do not produce symptoms. Symptoms may develop when the cervical cancer cells start to invade surrounding tissues.
Symptoms and signs of cervical cancer include:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding
- Vaginal bleeding after menopause and bleeding after sex
- Bleeding or spotting between periods
- Longer or heavier menstrual periods than usual
- Other abnormal vaginal discharge
- Pain during sexual intercourse
It is important to note that these symptoms are not specific for cervical cancer and can be caused by a variety of conditions.
What are the risk factors for cervical cancer?
As described previously, cervical cancers are caused by infection with one of the high-risk HPV types. Certain risk factors have been identified that increase a woman’s risk for developing cervical cancer:
- Tobacco smoking
- HIV infection
- Immune system suppression
- Past or current Chlamydia infection
- Long-term use of oral contraceptives (although the risk returns to normal when the contraceptive pills are discontinued)
- Having three or more full-term pregnancies
- Having a first full-term pregnancy before age 17
- Family history of cervical cancer
What are cervical cancer screening guidelines?
A Pap smear obtained during a routine pelvic examination is the typical screening procedure. When a Pap smear is done for women in between 21 and 65, combined with an HPV test, screening every five years is acceptable for women aged 30 and above.
- Women who have had a total hysterectomyfor a benign condition no longer have a cervix, and thus do not need to be screened for cervical cancer.
- However, women who have had a subtotal hysterectomy still have a cervix and should be screened according to guidelines.
- Certain conditions and special situations may change the frequency of screening, such as a history of abnormal Pap smears.
What tests are used to diagnose cervical cancer?
Pap testing is done to screen for cervical cancer. If abnormal cells are detected on the Pap smear, a colposcopy procedure is then performed.
Colposcopy uses a lighted microscope to examine the external surface of the cervix during a pelvic examination.
What are the stages of cervical cancer?
The stage of any cancer refers to the extent to which it has spread in the body at the time of diagnosis.
Cervical cancer is classified in stages from 0 to IV, with many subcategories within each numerical stage.
- Stage 0: This stage is not a true invasive cancer.
- Stage I: There is a small amount of tumor present that has not spread to any lymph nodes or distant sites.
- Stage II: The cancer has spread beyond the cervix and uterus, but does not invade the pelvic walls or the lower part of the vagina.
- Stage III: The cancer has grown into the lower part of the vagina or the walls of the pelvis. The tumor may be blocking the ureters (tubes that carry urine from the kidneys to the bladder). There is no spread to other sites in the body.
- Stage IV: This is the most advanced stage, in which the cancer has spread to the bladder or rectum, or to sites in other areas of the body.
What is the treatment for cervical cancer?
The treatment for cervical cancer depends upon many factors, including the stage of the cancer when it is diagnosed. Surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and targeted therapy are common methods of treatment for cervical cancer.
Is it possible to prevent cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer can often be prevented with vaccination and modern screening techniques that detect precancerous changes in the cervix.
Vaccination should occur before sexual activity to offer the full benefit of the vaccine. The CDC recommends that 11- to 12-year-old girls receive the HPV vaccine, and young women ages 13 through 26 should get the vaccine if they did not receive any or all doses when they were younger.
As with any cancer diagnosis, emotional support from family, friends, clergy, a counselor, or support group can help you and your family learn about the illness and cope with the diagnosis and effects of treatment. The prognosis is better for cancers that are detected in early stages than for advanced cancers.