What Is Cervical Cancer?

Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable cancers in women, and its death rate has dropped by more than half in the past few decades.

Why? Mostly because of screenings and vaccinations. While there isn’t a cervical cancer vaccination, there is a screening test that detects the human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes most cases of cervical cancer. And gynecologists perform easy, regular tests that can detect almost all cervical cancers.

Cervical Cancer Facts

There are two types of cells in the cervix, the organ that connects your uterus to your vagina: squamous cells and glandular cells. Between 80% and 90% of cervical cancer cases begin in the squamous cells (squamous cell carcinoma). The rest start from gland cells and are called adenocarcinoma.

Early-stage cervical cancer rarely has signs or symptoms. You might not know anything is wrong until the cancer is more advanced. Then you could have irregular vaginal bleeding or discharge, or pain during sex. Fortunately, screening tests can detect cervical cancer, and the HPV virus that usually causes it, very early.

Also, cervical cancer is slow-growing. It usually takes a few years for a normal cervical cell to turn into a cancerous one, if it ever does. Finding and treating pre-cancerous cells is the best way to prevent it.

Preventing Cervical Cancer

The most common type of cervical cancer is caused when your cervical cells change and become pre-cancerous. So, finding those cells and treating them before they become cancer is important. The other is to stop them altogether.

Pap test. This is your first line of defense against cervical cancer. It checks your cervical cells for signs that they’re becoming, or have already become, pre-cancerous.

If you have an abnormal Pap test, your doctor will do more tests and remove more tissue from your cervix for a biopsy. If it turns out that the cells are pre-cancerous, that doesn’t mean you’ll get cervical cancer. In fact, it probably means that you won’t get cancer because treating them early will likely prevent them from becoming cancer.

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There are a number of ways your doctor can get rid of the pre-cancerous cells. Usually, she can physically remove the tissue with a cone biopsy, or destroy it with laser treatment or cryosurgery (freezing). These treatments almost always work.

If your Pap test shows cancerous cells, your doctor will do more tests to figure out what stage the cancer is in. Surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy are all treatment options, and the success rate will depend on how early you caught it.

That’s why it’s so important to get a Pap test regularly. Talk to your doctor about how often you should have one. Most women between ages 21 and 29 should get it every 3 years. If you are between 30 and 64, you can add a test for high-risk HPV and extend your screening to every 5 years. If you’re older than that, you may be able to stop testing.

HPV test. Because cervical cancer is so tied to HPV, it has many of the same risk factors. The more sexual partners you’ve had and the earlier you started having sex, the more likely you are to get HPV and cervical cancer. It’s the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States.

Almost all cervical cancer is caused by HPV. But having HPV doesn’t mean that you’ll get cervical cancer.

After age 30, you should get an HPV test at the same time as a Pap test. This is called “co-testing,” and it’s the best way to detect early cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer is also the only preventable cancer. Experts recommend boys and girls get the HPV vaccine at age 11 or 12 to protect them from ever getting HPV. The vaccine is given in three doses over about 9 months. Teens who didn’t get the vaccine when they were younger should also get the vaccine. Women can also get it up to age 26.

Other Risk Factors

When it comes to things that can cause cervical cancer, there are several that you control. Some you cannot, however, like family history. Cervical cancer may run in families. So if your mother or sister has had it, you’re two to three times more likely to have it than if they didn’t have it.

Age is another issue. Most women who get cervical cancer are between the ages of 20 and 50.

If you’re a smoker, you have double the chance of getting cervical cancer than a nonsmoker. Researchers think that tobacco byproducts can start the cell changes that make cancer develop.

Other things that increase your chances of getting cervical cancer include:

  • Long-term use of the birth-control pill
  • More than three full-term pregnancies
  • Poverty (makes you less likely to be screened regularly)
  • Weakened immune system
  • A first pregnancy before age 17
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Lisa Bernstein, MD on September 18, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

CDC: “Cervical Cancer is Preventable,” “Human Papillomavirus (HPV): Questions and Answers,” “What Should I Know About Screening?”

American Cancer Society: “Cervical Cancer: Detailed Guide,” “HPV and HPV Testing.”

Mayo Clinic. “Cervical Cancer.”

Office on Women’s Health. “Pap Test.”

© 2016 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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