The American Cancer Society estimates that every year 12,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer in the US and every year 4,000 women die from complications related to cervical cancer. Major awareness campaigns have been created to help women understand this disease but even now thousands of women are unaware of the causes of cervical cancer and the simple preventative measures they can take.
What is Cervical Cancer?
Cervical cancer is a cancer of the cervix, which is the lower part of the uterus that opens into the vagina. The cervix is a tight muscle that normally stays shut with only a microscopic hole to allow menstrual fluid out and sperm in. During childbirth it opens to allow the baby to pass from the uterus and into the vagina.
What Causes Cervical Cancer?
Most types of cervical cancer are caused by genital human papillomavirus (HPV), a very common sexually transmitted disease. Nearly all sexually active men and women get at least one form of HPV at some point in their lives, even those who only have one sexual partner. There are over 150 different strains of HPV, and many are essentially harmless with no symptoms. Others, such as HPV 6 and HPV 11, cause 90% of genital warts. More dangerous are HPV 16 and HPV 18, which are estimated to cause 70% of all cases of cervical cancer.
Just because a woman has HPV doesn’t mean that she will develop cervical cancer. In most cases your body’s immune system fights off the infection within a few years, but if it doesn’t, HPV can cause some of your cervical cells to become “abnormal”. These abnormal cell changes are pre-cancerous and over time, could potentially lead to cervical cancer. This is why early detection through cervical cancer screening is so important: catching abnormal cell changes early and monitoring or getting treatment for those cells can save your life.
Most of the time precancerous cells and early stage cervical cancer don’t have any symptoms and won’t have any until the cancer has spread. However, one of the most common symptoms that can occur is irregular bleeding during or after intercourse, between periods, or after menopause. Other symptoms include:
- Discomfort during sexual intercourse
- Smelly vaginal discharge
- Vaginal discharge tinged with blood
- Pelvic pain
- Pain during urination
Preventing Cervical Cancer: Cervical Screening
Since there are often no symptoms for cervical cancer the screening process is crucial for protecting yourself. Nearly half of all cervical cancer cases in the US are found in women who were never screened for the disease and 10% of cases were found in women who hadn’t been screened within the last 5 years.Cervical cancer screening is generally done in your gynecologist’s office or clinic and comes in two forms: Pap smears and HPV tests.
Pap smears specifically test for abnormal cervical cells, essentially looking for cancer or precancerous cells. They are recommended for all women starting at age 21 or within three years of becoming sexually active, whichever comes first. You should continue getting tested every three years after that – even if you are no longer sexually active. Current guidelines in the US advise that testing after 65 is unnecessary if you have had normal Pap tests for several years, but you should speak to your doctor about your specific care.
The HPV test checks your cells for the presence of any form of HPV virus and are generally only recommended for women 30 years or older since HPV is so common in younger women. Most women have contracted and fought off the virus at that point and if you still have the virus your doctor will want to monitor you more closely. If you are under 30 and have had an abnormal Pap smear your doctor might prescribe an HPV test.
Other Ways to Prevent Cervical Cancer
- Vaccination: One of the best ways you can prevent cervical cancer is vaccination. There are currently two types of vaccines available: one that protects against the HPV strains most likely to cause cancer and genital warts and one that just protects against those most likely to cause cancer. Both vaccines require 3 different shots over 6 months. It is recommended that you vaccinate girls between the ages of 9 and 26 years old.
- Avoid Contact with HPV: Women with many sexual partners are more likely to contract HPV and therefore have a higher risk of cervical cancer. Since there are often no symptoms of HPV it is harder to know if your partner is infected, so limiting your number of partners can help limit your risk. Just remember that transmission of HPV doesn’t require intercourse, just skin to skin contact with an infected area of another person’s body. Condoms may lower the risk of HPV, but the condom might not cover all of the infected parts of your partner’s body so it might not fully protect you.
- Don’t Smoke: Smoking has been proven to increase your risk of precancerous and cancerous cells, so cutting out the cigarettes can help protect you from the disease.
Cervical cancer is preventable if precancerous cell changes are detected and treated early. The best and most effective way to avoid cervical cancer is to never allow your cells to become cancerous. Be proactive and schedule your screening test today.