Understanding cervical cancer: signs, causes and risk factors – The Globe
WORTHINGTON — Cervical cancer was once the leading cause of cancer death among women in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Thanks to regular testing and the introduction of the HPV vaccine, the number of cancer cases and deaths has dropped significantly.
Vaccination and early detection have made it one of the most preventable forms of cancer.
Overview of Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer begins in the cervix, the lower part of the uterus. The cervix connects the uterus to the vagina (birth canal). Cancer begins when healthy cells in the body change and begin to grow abnormally. Cells’ DNA develops mutations that cause cells to grow out of control. Over time, the growth can lead to a lump and eventually spread elsewhere in the body if left untreated.
Causes of cervical cancer
The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common cause of cervical cancer. HPV is a sexually transmitted virus, and the majority of sexually active people will be exposed to HPV in their lifetime. Vaccination can prevent getting this infection.
Most HPV infections are mild and go away on their own. When the virus does not go away, it can lead to cervical cancer.
Other factors, such as smoking and having HIV (the virus that causes AIDS), can also increase your risk of cervical cancer.
Cervical Cancer Symptoms
Cervical cancer can take years to develop. The early stages of cervical cancer produce few or no symptoms. At an early stage, cervical cancer is often curable. If left untreated, cervical cancer can spread to other parts of the body, making it harder to cure.
As the cancer progresses, symptoms may include:
- Bleeding or discharge after sex
- Bleeding between periods or after menopause
- Pain during sex
If you experience any of these symptoms, let your provider know. They can help determine the cause and provide treatment recommendations.
Cervical cancer screening options
The best way to find out if you have cervical cancer is through screening. Fortunately, regular testing and follow-up appointments make cervical cancer the most preventable gynecological cancer, according to the CDC. There are two types of tests.
A Pap smear or Pap test is used to find precancers or cell changes on the cervix that could turn cancerous if not treated properly. A Pap test result can be normal, uncertain or abnormal.
Normal: The test did not find any abnormal changes on your cervix and your test was negative. Your doctor will tell you how long to wait before your next test.
ASC-US: It is possible that your cervical cells are abnormal, although it could be related to other changes such as infection, menopause or pregnancy. Ask your doctor about the next steps.
Abnormal: The test revealed cell changes on your cervix. Generally, an abnormal result does not mean that you have cervical cancer. Many times these changes are caused by HPV. Minor changes usually return to normal without treatment. More concerning changes can turn into cancer if left untreated. You may need further tests to confirm. Ask your doctor about the next steps.
An HPV test is used to find the virus that can cause cell changes. An HPV test result can be positive or negative.
Negative: You do not have a type of HPV linked to cervical cancer. Your doctor will tell you how long to wait before your next test.
Positive: You have a type of HPV that may be linked to cervical cancer. A positive result does not mean that you currently have cervical cancer, but can serve as a warning. Your doctor will advise you on the next steps.
When to get tested
- Women aged 21 to 29: have a Pap test every three years
- Women aged 30 to 65: get a Pap test and HPV screening every five years
There is new evidence to suggest HPV testing only. You can discuss this option with your provider.
Reduce the risk of cervical cancer
Here are some steps you can take to reduce your risk of cervical cancer:
1. Get the HPV vaccine: The vaccine is the safest and most effective way to prevent cervical cancer, especially when given between the ages of 9 and 12. It is always beneficial to get vaccinated even if you are already sexually active, and the vaccine can be given up to age 45.
2. Receive regular screenings: Tests can uncover precancerous cervical cells, allowing for early treatment and ongoing monitoring to prevent cervical cancer.
3. Practice safer sex: Using condoms during sex and limiting the number of sexual partners can reduce your risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection.
4. Don’t smoke: Smoking has been linked to cervical squamous cell cancer. If you smoke, find ways to quit by talking to your provider.
Preventive screenings are essential to catch diseases early when they are most treatable – and before they become serious. Learn more about preventative care at sanfordhealth.org.
To make an appointment, call the Sanford Worthington Clinic at 372-3800.
The information in this article has been reviewed by Nicole Woodley, MD, obstetrics and gynecology specialist at Sanford Health.