What Woman Should Know About Cervical Cancer

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To celebrate Women’s History Month this March, we wrote about women’s health issues we need to start talking about. You may have noticed one major health issue missing: Cervical cancer. And that’s because we think it’s important enough for its own post. 

Here are the most important things we think everyone should know about cervical cancer.

What exactly is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is cancer of the cervix, which attaches the vagina to the uterus.

Once the most common cause of death for women in the U.S., cervical cancer can now be found early and sometimes even prevented, by having regular screening tests. If detected early, cervical cancer is one of the most successfully treatable cancers.

What causes cervical cancer

According to the CDC, most instances of cervical cancer are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted disease that’s so common, almost all sexually active adults get it at least once in their lifetime. 

There are about 100 different strains of HPV, and only certain types cause cervical cancer. Being infected with a cancer-causing strain of HPV doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get cervical cancer — healthy immune systems are usually able to eliminate the vast majority of HPV infections within 2 years.

But it doesn’t always go away on its own — and that’s when it can lead to cervical cancer. If HPV is found during a gynecological screening, your provider should keep an eye on it.

Although HPV is the main cause of cervical cancer, there are a few other risk factors:

  • Weak immune system. As with other forms of cancer, a weak immune system puts individuals at high risk due to the fact that the body isn’t able to destroy or curtail the growth and spread of cancer cells or infections such as HPV. 
  • Smoking. According to the American Cancer Society, females who smoke are twice as likely to develop cervical cancer as those who do not. Studies have demonstrated that the by-products of tobacco damage the DNA in the cervix, and smoking also weakens the immune system.
  • Family history. If other females in your family, particularly a mother or a sister, have or had cervical cancer, you may be at a higher risk.
  • Sexual history. Factors related to sexual history can increase cervical cancer risk, likely by increasing the risk of exposure to HPV. These include:
  • Using oral contraceptives for a long time. Taking oral contraceptives for a long period of time can increase cervical cancer risk. Your risk level can go back down when you stop taking them.
  • Having multiple pregnancies. Females who have given birth to 3 or more children are at an increased risk for cervical cancer.
  • Chlamydia. Some research has found that having chlamydia can raise the risk of cervical cancer.

Stages of cervical cancer

Before cancer even starts to develop in the cervix, a pap test can recognize subtle changes. And if cervical cancer has started to evolve, this screening test identifies the change earlier on, when it’s easier to treat and cure.

Thankfully cervical cancer develops very slowly. It can take years or even decades for the abnormal changes in the cervix to become invasive cancer cells. Again, this means ample opportunity to detect and treat.

If cervical cancer does develop, it follows these stages:

  • Stage 0: Precancerous cells are present.
  • Stage 1: Cancer cells have grown from the surface into deeper tissues of the cervix, and possibly into the uterus and to nearby lymph nodes.
  • Stage 2: The cancer has now moved beyond the cervix and uterus, but not as far as the walls of the pelvis or the lower part of the vagina. It may or may not affect nearby lymph nodes.
  • Stage 3: Cancer cells are present in the lower part of the vagina or the walls of the pelvis, and it may be blocking the ureters, the tubes that carry urine from the bladder. It may or may not affect nearby lymph nodes.
  • Stage 4: The cancer affects the bladder or rectum and is growing out of the pelvis. It may or may not affect the lymph nodes. Later in stage 4, it will spread to distant organs, including the liver, bones, lungs, and lymph nodes.

Determining the stage may start with a series of imaging tests to look for evidence of cancer. Your doctor can get a better idea of the stage after performing surgery.

Cervical cancer treatment

Depending on the stage and how far the cervical cancer has spread, treatment may include: 

  • Surgery. A variety of surgical procedures can be used to remove cancer from the body. A couple of examples are conization (removal of the cancerous tissue from the cervix) and hysterectomy.
  • Radiation therapy. Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells or prevent them from growing. This type of treatment can be given either externally or internally.
  • Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy uses strong drugs to kill cancer cells or stop them from growing and dividing.
  • Targeted therapy. Targeted therapy uses drugs that target specific molecules that are present on cancer cells. Because of this, it’s less likely to cause harm to healthy cells.
  • Immunotherapy. Immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that helps your immune system respond to cancer cells.

Preventing cervical cancer 

If you’re only taking one thing away from this post, let it be this: GET REGULAR SCREENINGS.

Annual pap tests and HPV tests can look for pre-cancers and check your overall risk for cervical cancer. Pre-cancer can be treated before it turns into cancer.

Here are the CDC’s screening guidelines:

  • If you’re 21 to 29, get a pap test every 3 years.
  • If you’re 30 to 65, get a pap test plus an HPV test every 5 years. Alternatively, you could have the pap test alone every 3 years.
  • If you’ve had a total hysterectomy for reasons other than cancer or precancer, you no longer need to have pap or HPV tests. If your uterus was removed, but you still have your cervix, screening should continue.
  • If you’re over age 65, haven’t had a serious precancer in the past 20 years, and have had regular screening for 10 years, you can stop cervical cancer screening.

Here are some other ways you might lower your risk:

  • Getting an HPV vaccine. An HPV vaccine is one of the best ways to protect yourself from HPV and to lower your risk of cervical cancer.
  • Having safe sex every time. Using condoms and other barrier methods, and talking about STIs with any sexual partners can help prevent HPV.
  • Quitting smoking, if you smoke. There are numerous health benefits to quitting smoking, including lowering your risk of cervical cancer.

Schedule a screening today

If it’s been awhile since you had a screening, don’t wait. StarMed offers a full range of women’s health services and our providers are committed to keeping you well. Take control of your reproductive health and schedule an appointment today.