Cancer is a disease in which cells in the body grow out of control. Cancer is always named for the part of the body where it starts, even if it spreads to other body parts later. When cancer starts in the cervix, it is called cervical cancer. The cervix is the lower, narrow end of the uterus. Also known as the womb, the uterus is where a baby grows when a woman is pregnant. The cervix connects the upper part of the uterus to the vagina (birth canal).
Each year more than 350 North Carolina women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and over 100 die from the condition. The majority of these deaths occur in women over age 45.
Some warning signs of cervical cancer are:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding
- Increased vaginal discharge
- Pelvic pain
- Pain during sexual intercourse
Changes and early cancers of the cervix generally do not cause pain or other symptoms. Don’t wait to feel pain before seeing a doctor. Infections or other health problems may also cause these symptoms. Only a doctor can tell for sure.
Research has found several risk factors that may increase your chances of getting cervical cancer. Risk factors that increase risk of cervical cancer include:
- HPV Infection - Some strains of HPV are high risk and can cause cervical cancer or abnormal cell changes of the cervix.
- Lack of regular Pap tests - Cervical cancer is more common among women who do not have regular Pap tests. The Pap test helps doctors find precancerous cells. Treating precancerous cell changes often prevents cancer.
- HIV Infection or weakened immune system
- Age - Occurs most often in women over 40
- Sexual History - Many sexual partners
- Smoking - Women who smoke are about twice as likely as non-smokers to get cervical cancer.
- Oral Contraceptives - Long term use
- Family history of cervical cancer - Cervical cancer may run in some families. If your mother or sister had cervical cancer, your chances of developing the disease are increased by 2 to 3 times.
Most cervical cancer can be prevented. There are 2 ways to prevent this disease. The first way is to prevent pre-cancers. This is best done by avoiding risk factors.
Young women can delay starting to have sex until they are older. Women of all ages can protect against HPV by having few sexual partners and not having sex with people who have had many partners.
There are now vaccines that can protect people against HPV. So far, vaccines that protect against certain types of HPV have been shown to work in preventing most genital warts. Right now vaccines are only used to prevent, not treat, an HPV infection. For more information about the HPV vaccine, visit the CDC’s website www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/STDFact-HPV-vaccine-young-women.htm
The Pap test is a quick and simple, generally painless test that can detect abnormal cells and changes in the cervix. The Pap test is done in a doctor’s office or clinic during a pelvic exam.
Most deaths from cervical cancer could be avoided if women had regular checkups with the Pap test.
Women should begin having Pap tests after they reach age 21. Most women should have a Pap test at least once every 3-5 years.
Women should talk to their doctor about when to begin having Pap tests, how often to have them and when to stop having them.
Tips for getting a Pap test
Here are some things you can do to make your Pap test more accurate:
- Try not to have the test during your period.
- Do not douche for 48 hours before the test.
- Do not have sex for 48 hours before the test.
- Do not use tampons, birth control foams, jellies or other vaginal creams or medicines for 48 hours before the test.
If a woman has one or more symptoms or a Pap test that suggest cancer, the doctor will suggest further tests to diagnose or rule out cancer. These include:
- Colposcopy - Combines a bright light with a magnifying lens to make tissue of the cervix easier to see. This test is usually done in a doctor’s office or clinic.
- Biopsy - T issue is removed from the cervix to help find out if there is cancer. The tissue is then tested with a microscope.
There are three treatment options for cervical cancer.
Cervical Cancer: Basic Info. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved on October 2, 2013 from www.cdc.gov/cancer/cervical/basic_info/
- Surgery - An operation to remove the tumor and/or the area affected by the cancer (all or part of the cervix, ovaries, uterus, etc.)
- Radiation Therapy - Uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells.
- Chemotherapy - Uses anticancer drugs to kill cancer.
What You Need to Know About Cancer of the Cervix. National Cancer Institute. Retrieved on October 2, 2013 from www.cancer.gov/cancerinfo/wyntk/cervix