Cervical cancer is the growth of cancer cells in the cervix, the part of the body that connects the uterus to the vagina. Cervical cancer can be intimidating, but we’re here to help. Below, you’ll find information that can help you understand your cancer and how we’re going to help you through it.
Symptoms usually do not appear until the abnormal cells become cancerous. You may experience pelvic discomfort or a backache, but the most common symptom is abnormal bleeding, which may include:
- Bleeding between regular menstrual periods
- Bleeding after sexual intercourse, douching or a pelvic exam
- Menstrual bleeding that lasts longer and is heavier than usual
- Vaginal bleeding after menopause
- Increased vaginal discharge that is not blood
Cervical cancer is most common in women over 25 years old. Factors that may increase your chance of cervical cancer include:
Smoking causes carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) to be absorbed into the bloodstream, which raises your risk of cancer.
People who are obese have a higher risk of developing cancer than those with a normal bodyweight.
Your sexual habits can significantly affect your risk of developing cervical cancer. The following may increase your risk:
- Unprotected intercourse
- Multiple sexual partners
- Sexual activity before the age of 18
- Long-term use of hormonal contraceptives
If your first pregnancy was before the age of 20, you carry a higher risk of cervical cancer.
Medical Conditions and Treatments
- HPV infection
- History of cervical dysplasia, which is a precancerous condition
- If your mother took the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES) during pregnancy
- HIV infection
- Breast cancer chemotherapy
The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the top risk factor for cervical cancer. Research suggests that HPV and other sexually transmitted viruses can cause cervical cells to change in ways that lead to cancer. To reduce your risk of contracting HPV, practice safe sex and get vaccinated. The HPV vaccine can be given to women 9-26 years old.
Finding and treating precancerous tissue in the cervix is the best way to prevent cervical cancer. One of the best ways to screen for cervical cancer is with the Pap test. In this test, a sample of cells is taken from the cervix and tested. This test is also used to detect cervical dysplasia and HPV. Talk to your doctor about how often you should receive Pap tests. Many professional health organizations offer the following recommendations for healthy women:
- 21-29 years old: Pap test and HPV test every 3 years
- 30-65 years old: Pap test and HPV test every 5 years
- 65 years or older: No further testing if you have had consistently normal results
Note: You will need to have Pap tests done more often if you have abnormal results or certain conditions, like a weak immune system or a history of cervical dysplasia or cervical cancer. Talk to your doctor about the right screening schedule for you.
After reviewing your symptoms and medical history, your doctor will conduct a physical exam of your vagina and cervix. Your doctor will likely recommend further tests to confirm a diagnosis, including:
- Blood and urine tests
- Colposcopy: a lighted, magnifying instrument is used to examine the cervix
- Biopsy: removal of a sample of cervical tissue for testing
- A sentinel lymph node biopsy
- CT scan
- MRI scan
- PET scan
How we treat your cervical cancer will depend on its stage. Stage I cancer is very localized, while stage IV cancer is cancer that has spread to other parts of the body. Treatments may include:
Surgical treatment involves the removal of the cancerous tumor, surrounding tissue and possibly nearby lymph nodes. If the tumor is contained within the cervix, your doctor may only remove the tumor and some healthy tissue. If the cancer is at a later stage, more tissue will need to be removed. This may involve removing the ovaries, fallopian tubes and, in some cases, the uterus.
Radiation therapy is used to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation may be administered in two ways:
- External Radiation Therapy: Radiation directed at the tumor from a source outside the body
- Internal Radiation Therapy: Radioactive materials placed in or near cancer cells
Chemotherapy is the use of toxic drugs to kill cancer cells. Treatments come in many forms, including pill, injection and by catheter. These drugs enter the bloodstream and travel through the body, killing mostly cancer cells, but also some healthy cells. Chemotherapy alone rarely cures cervical cancer, but can be highly effective when used with surgery and/or radiation. Chemotherapy can also be used to help control pain and bleeding.