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What is Cervical Cancer?

Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that occurs in the cells of a woman’s cervix. The cervix is the lowest part of the uterus that connects it to the vagina. The cells in the cervix don’t suddenly change into cancer. Instead, these cells slowly develop into pre-cancerous cells first, and then the cells become cancerous over time. This process usually takes several years. If these cells are not found and treated in their earliest stages, they can spread to other tissues or organs. Most cervical cancer is either squamous [SKWAY-muhs] cell carcinoma or adenocarcinoma [ad-n-oh-kahr-suh-NOH-muhs].

A virus called the human papillomavirus, or HPV, often causes cervical cancer. There are several types of the human papillomavirus. HPV can be passed from one person to another during sex.

A screening test, called a Pap smear, can find abnormal cells before they become cancer. During a Pap smear, cells from the cervix are collected and examined under a microscope to check for the presence of cancer. Intermountain Healthcare follows the recommendation from the American Cancer Society that all women begin cervical cancer testing at age 21.

At one time, cervical cancer was one of the most common causes of death for American women. The death rate has gone down by more than 50% over the last 40 years. This is because of the increased use of the Pap smear.

Symptoms

Women with early cervical cancers usually have no symptoms. Symptoms of cervical cancer often do not begin until the cancer is growing quickly and begins to spread to other body parts. When this happens, the most common symptoms are:

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding
  • Unusual vaginal discharge
  • Pain during intercourse

When to See a Doctor

It is important that women are regularly screening for cervical cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends that all women should begin cervical cancer testing at age 21. The screening should occur every three years.

If you experience any of the symptoms listed above, see your healthcare provider right away. The symptoms may or may not be because of cervical cancer, but may be caused by another medical condition and may need immediate treatment.

Causes

A number of risk factors can increase your chances of getting cervical cancer. A risk factor is anything that increases you chance of getting a medical condition. The most common risk factors for cervical cancer are:

  • HPV. There are several types of the human papillomavirus. HPV can be passed from one person to another through sexual contact. It is a common cause of genital warts and can infect the cells of the mouth, throat, genitals, and anus.
  • Smoking. Smoking increases the chance of getting almost all cancers. Women who smoke are almost twice as likely to get cervical cancer.
  • Other medical conditions. Other illnesses that attack the body’s disease-fighting (immune) system, such as HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) or an organ transplant have a greater risk of developing cervical cancer.
  • Chlamydia. This sexually transmitted infection (STI) is common and often doesn’t have any symptoms. Left untreated, if can cause inflammation and infertility.
  • Being overweight or obese. Women who carry extra weight or don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables have a higher chance of developing cervical cancer.
  • Family history. If a woman in your family has had cervical cancer, your risk of getting it is 2 to 3 times higher.

In some cases, the cause of cervical cancer is unknown.

Diagnosis and Tests

If you have an abnormal Pap smear result, or if you are experiencing symptoms of cervical cancer, your doctor will order further tests.

  • Blood tests are done to look for markers in the blood that may confirm or rule out cancer.
  • Colposcopy is a sort of magnifying glass that allows your doctor to examine your cervix more closely. It is used with a speculum (as in a Pap smear) but remains outside the body.
  • Cervical biopsies are a way to take small samples of tissue to check for cancer. There are many different ways to do a cervical biopsy. Your doctor will choose the best method based on your specific situation and overall health.
  • Imaging tests may be used to see if cancer has spread outside of the cervix.

Treatments

You and your doctor will choose a treatment plan based on how far the cancer has spread (called the cancer “stage”). You may need a combination of different treatments. These treatments may include:

  • Surgery to take out part or all of the cervix or other affected tissue.
  • Radiation therapy to shrink or kill cancer cells with targeted x-rays.
  • Chemotherapy is used to kill cancer cells with medicine that is targeted for your specific type and stage.

Prevention

There is no way to completely prevent cervical cancer. There are things you can do that might reduce your risk.

  • Get screened for cervical cancer regularly. The Pap smear can find pre-cancerous cells before they spread.
  • Get the HPV vaccine. Research has shown that the vaccine can prevent infection caused by certain types of HPV, including the types that cause cervical cancer. The HPV vaccine is recommended for both males and females 9 to 26 years old.
  • Quit smoking. Quitting tobacco is the single most important thing you can do to improve your health. Ask your healthcare provider for help.