The third-most common type of cancer in women, cervical cancer begins with abnormal cells on the cervix. Here’s what you need to know to reduce your chance of getting this potentially deadly cancer.
WHAT IS CERVICAL CANCER?
The cervix is a part of the female anatomy that is located at the bottom of the uterus (or “womb”). The cervix provides an opening between the uterus and the vagina. When a woman is pregnant, the cervix holds a baby inside the uterus until it is time to give birth.
Abnormal cells can form on the surface of the cervix. These abnormal cells are called cervical cancer. If left untreated, cervical cancer can be deadly. It can spread to other internal organs, such as the intestines. Luckily, changes to cervical cells often can be caught early just by getting a Pap smear test.
CAUSES OF CERVICAL CANCER
Human papilloma virus (HPV) is the primary culprit in causing cervical cancer. HPV occurs in many different varieties (or “strains”). Most strains of HPV do not cause cancer. In fact, HPV causes genital warts, which is a common sexually transmitted disease that usually goes away on its own, without treatment. However, certain strains of HPV can cause cervical cells to change and become cancerous.
RISK FACTORS FOR GETTING CERVICAL CANCER
Lifestyle choices and certain factors outside a woman’s control can contribute to an increased risk of getting cervical cancer. Some risk factors include:
- Not getting vaccinated against HPV
- Engaging in sex at an early age
- Having multiple sex partners
- Having a weakened immune system
- Having a mother who took DES (diethylstilbestrol) during pregnancy (this applies to women born in the 1960s and early 1970s, as DES was withdrawn from use in pregnant women in 1971)
CERVICAL CANCER SYMPTOMS
Usually, women do not experience any symptoms due to cervical cancer. That’s why it’s so important to get a Pap smear on the schedule recommended by your healthcare provider. A Pap smear can detect early changes to cells on the surface of the cervix. Because cervical cancer is slow-growing, it is 100% treatable when caught early.
Occasionally, cervical cancer may cause symptoms that include abnormal vaginal bleeding at unexpected times (such as in between periods) and pale, foul-smelling vaginal discharge. However, these symptoms also can be caused by conditions other than cervical cancer. If you experience these symptoms, contact your healthcare provider for an examination.
CERVICAL CANCER TREATMENT
The type of treatment you may receive for cervical cancer very much depends on the stage of your cancer. For early-stage cancer, a simple procedure to destroy the cancerous or pre-cancerous tissue often is all you will need. For later-stage cervical cancer, surgery plus chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy may be required.
HOW TO PREVENT CERVICAL CANCER
The best way to prevent getting cervical cancer is to get vaccinated against HPV. These vaccines are approved for use in women under age 26. If you have daughters between age 12 and 26, you should talk to your health care provider about the HPV vaccine as a way to protect your child from ever getting cervical cancer. If you’re older than age 26 (and thus not a candidate for the HPV vaccine), you can help prevent cervical cancer in these ways:
- Use a condom. Because HPV can be present in skin areas not covered by a condom, this is no guarantee you will not get infected with HPV. However, using a condom is a good sexual practice for many other reasons beyond HPV transmission.
- Limit your number of sexual partners. Because HPV is so common, your chances of contracting it go up with an increased number of sex partners.
- Don’t have sex with partners who engage in risky behavior. “Risky behavior” includes having multiple partners and practicing un-safe sex (not using a condom).
- Get a Pap test. Talk with your health care provider about how often you should get a Pap test. That way, even if you test positive for abnormal cells, the problem can be treated before cancer arises.
- Quit smoking. Research shows a higher incidence of cervical cancer in women who smoke.
BEAT CERVICAL CANCER FOR GOOD
If you practice safer sex, get vaccinated against HPV and get routine Pap tests, your chances of getting cervical cancer become very low. And preventing cervical cancer is the best way to “beat it” for good.