What is Cervical Cancer?
The cervix is a part of a woman’s reproductive system, which connects her uterus to her vagina. When cells in the cervix grow rapidly and out of control, it becomes cancerous. Cervical cancer begins in the cervix, but can spread to other parts of the body.
All women are at risk of cervical cancer, but it occurs most often in women over 30. Most cervical cancer cases are caused by a prolonged infection of the human papilloma virus (HPV).
The virus, which is commonly sexually transmitted, is usually harmless and goes away on its own. However, some types may cause genital warts or even, in some instances, cancer.
In the Philippines, cervical cancer is the second most common cancer among women, despite it being preventable.
What are the signs of cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer does not usually show symptoms until its late stages.
However, when symptoms do appear, these are easily mistaken for more common conditions like urinary tract infections.
What are the signs of Cervical Cancer? Watch out for the following:
- Spotting or light bleeding between or following a period
- Menstrual bleeding that is longer and heavier than usual
- Bleeding during or after sex, or after a pelvic exam
- Increased vaginal discharge that looks and smells different than usual
- Persistent and unexplained pain in the pelvis or back
- Pain during urination
After understanding what are the signs of cervical cancer, it is important to consult your doctor for possible health screenings and other tests should you experience any of these symptoms.
The earlier a precancerous cell is found and treated, the better the chances of favorable outcomes.
Causes and Risk Factors
Most cervical cancers are caused by HPV. Although there are about 100 strains of HPV, the two most common types that cause cervical cancer are HPV-16 and HPV-18. Some strains of HPV cause the normal cells to develop into cancerous cells.
Being infected with HPV does not automatically lead to cervical cancer. A woman’s immune system automatically eliminates HPV within the span of two years.
Cervical cancer risk factors you should know
Although HPV is one of the main causes of cervical cancer, the following are also factors. These may increase your risk for cervical cancer:
- Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
- A family history of cervical cancer
- A diet low in fruits and vegetables
- Taking birth control pills
- Having three full-term pregnancies
- Having your first pregnancy before 17
The first step in diagnosing cervical cancer is getting a pap smear. A pap smear is part of a woman’s regular pelvic exam.
In a pap smear test, a obstetrician/gynecologist will collect cells from the surface of the cervix, which are then analyzed to see if they are abnormal. If the cells taken show abnormalities, a biopsy may be recommended. This entails getting a sample tissue from the cervix.
The U.S. Preventive Services task Force (USPSTF) recommends that women undergo pap smears and HPV tests regularly.
- Women ages 20-29: A pap smear every three years
- Women ages 30-65: A pap smear once every three years, while a high-risk HPV (hrHPV) every five years, or get a pap smear and a high-risk HPV every five years
Cervical cancer is curable and treatable, especially when you know what are the signs of cervical cancer, leading to early diagnosis. There are four known treatments for cervical cancer:
- Surgery: The part of the body that has cancer cells is removed. When cervical cancer is widespread, this may entail removal of the entire cervix and other reproductive organs.
- Radiation therapy: Cancer cells are destroyed using high-energy radiation beams.
- Chemotherapy: Drugs are used to kill the cancer cells. The drugs are given in doses over a period of time and in cycles.
- Targeted therapy: Drugs are prescribed to block the growth of new blood vessels that keep the cancer cells alive. Targeted therapy is often given together with chemotherapy.
The treatment approaches recommended by the doctor will be based on a patient’s medical history and physical condition. Sometimes these are combined to increase the efficacy of treatment.
Getting cancer treatment during pregnancy
For pregnant women, treatment options are dependent on how far along she is in her pregnancy. Those still in the first trimester might be advised by a physician to get immediate treatment due to heightened health risks. For the safety of the mother, the pregnancy may have to be ended.
For those in their second or third trimesters, the doctor might deem it safe to proceed with the pregnancy and have an early delivery via caesarean. Therapy will be advised afterwards.
As HPVs are the most common causes of cervical cancer, you can better protect yourself by practicing safe sex, limiting the number of sexual partners, and having yourself vaccinated. Vaccines like Gardasil and Cervarix work best before a person becomes sexually active.
Using a condom when having vaginal, oral, or anal sex is another means to reduce the risk of contracting HPV and cervical cancer.
Along with this, as part of your reproductive health, get a pap smear and hrHPV screening regularly. These tests can help spot precancerous cells early and help your physician provide treatment when needed.
Cervical cancer is a highly preventable disease. By understanding what are the signs of cervical cancer, by practicing safe sex and by following a healthy lifestyle, you can reduce your risk of contracting the disease.
Regular testing and consultations with your doctor will also help improve detection and early intervention of the disease.
Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.