Cervical cancer starts in the cells of the cervix, the lower, narrow end of the uterus. The cervix connects the uterus to the vagina. According to the National Cancer Institute, Cervical cancer develops slowly over time, with cells undergoing changes known as dysplasia, where abnormal cells appear in cervical tissue. If not destroyed or removed, these abnormal cells may become cancerous and grow and spread more deeply into the cervix and surrounding tissue. Not all precancerous cells will become cancer cells, but finding and treating them before they become problematic is critical to preventing cervical cancer.
How Common is Cervical Cancer?
Worldwide, cervical cancer is the third most common cancer in women but is much less common in the United States thanks to early detection through pap tests. Approximately 14,000 Americans are diagnosed with cervical cancers annually. Most cervical cancers occur in women between the ages of 35 and 44, although the average age at diagnosis is 50. About 4,000 people die each year from cervical cancer.
What are the most common signs and symptoms of cervical cancer?
Early stages of cervical cancer rarely have symptoms but may be difficult to identify. It may be years before cervical cancer begins. Detection in cervical cancer screening helps eliminate the recurrence of the cancer.
Early-stage cervical cancer symptoms can include:
- Watery or bloody vaginal discharge that can be heavy and have a four odor
- Vaginal bleeding after sexual intercourse, between menstrual periods or after menopause
- Menstrual periods that are heavier and last longer than normal
More advanced cervical cancer symptoms when cancer cells have spread to nearby tissues or organs can include:
- Difficult or painful urination, sometimes with blood in the urine
- Diarrhea, or pain or bleeding from the rectum
- Fatigue, loss of weight and appetite
- Dull backache or swelling in the legs
- Pelvic or abdominal pain
If you experience abnormal vaginal bleeding, unusual discharge or any other unexplained symptoms, you should have a complete gynecological examination, including a Pap test.
Cervical Cancer Risk Factors
Risk factors for cervical cancer include:
- Many sexual partners
- Having sexual intercourse at an early age
- Having other sexually transmitted infections like chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis and HIV
- A weakened immune system caused by another health condition
- Exposure to the miscarriage prevention drug diethylstilbestrol (DES) when you were in utero
- HPV infection
Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and Cervical Cancer
Most cervical cancers are caused by human papillomavirus or HPV. HPV infections are the most prevalent virus in the reproductive system. There are more than 100 kinds of HPV, with about a dozen connected to cervical cancer. When HPV is detected early, and cell changes are identified, patients can get appropriate treatment before cancerous tissue forms. HPV vaccines can help prevent infection by protecting you against the viruses that cause up to 90% of all cervical cancers.
What Tests Check for Cervical Cancer?
Pap smears are the most common method to test for cervical cancer, followed by HPV tests that check for the human papillomavirus. These screenings can help prevent cervical cancer or find it early. We perform both tests in our office. During a pap smear, Dr. Kaur will use an instrument called a speculum to look inside the vagina. This instrument helps her examine the vagina and the cervix and collect a few cells and mucus from the cervix and nearby tissues. The cells are sent to a laboratory for examination. For Pap smears, the cells will be checked to see if they appear normal. For an HPV test, the cells will be tested for human papillomavirus.
When to Get Cervical Cancer Screening
21-29 years old. Start getting pap tests at age 21. If your result is normal, we may tell you that you can wait three years until your next one.
30 to 65 years old. Talk to Dr. Kaur about which testing option is right for you.
- An HPV test along with a pap test; if both are normal, you may be able to wait five years for your next regular screening tests.
- A Pap test only; if your cervical screening is normal, you may be able to wait three years until your next one.
Older Than 65. You may not need to be screened anymore if you have had normal tests for several years, have not had a surgical precancer in the past., or had a radical hysterectomy for non-cancerous conditions like fibroids that included removing the cervix.
What is Cervical Precancer?
Pre-cancer cells occur when cervical cells look abnormal but are not yet cancerous. These abnormal cells are often the first sign of cancer that develops years later. Cervical precancer usually doesn't cause pain or other symptoms and is found through a pelvic exam or a pap test.
Prevention of Cervical Cancer
You can prevent cervical cancer by taking the following steps:
- Get the HPV vaccine that prevents most types of HPV infection that causes cervical cancer.
- Practice safer sex by using condoms to reduce risk factors for HPV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
- Limit your number of sexual partners and avoid partners who have high-risk sexual behaviors.
- If you smoke, quit, as smokers have an increased risk of developing cervical cancer.
- Get HPV tests, which can be used with pap tests to screen for cervical cancer in women 30 years and older.
Get pap smears as often as recommended for your age. Dr. Kaur will be happy to discuss your risk factors for cervical cancer during a consultation. Contact us to set up your appointment.
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