Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in women worldwide. In the United States, according to the American Cancer Society, about 12,710 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2011 and 4,290 women died of the disease. Cervical cancer is caused by “high-risk” types of the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a very common sexually transmitted infection, about 3 of every 4 adults will have had HPV at some time in their lives, and most HPV infections go away without treatment. Infections that do not go away can cause cells on the cervix to change and become abnormal. Over time, abnormal cells can develop into cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer is a disease
Cervical cancer affects the cells of the cervix, which is continuous with the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. Infection with various strains of HPV, a sexually transmitted agent, induce over 98% of cervical cancer cases.
Cervical cancer does not cause any symptoms until it has advanced to a very late stage. That’s why it’s important to get screened regularly even if you feel healthy. There are 2 tests used for cervical cancer screening, the Pap test and the HPV test. The Pap test looks for abnormal cells that can develop into cervical cancer. If necessary, the abnormal cells can be treated, but keep in mind that abnormal cells are not yet cancer. Treated effectively at an early stage, abnormal cells will not develop into cervical cancer. Current U.S. screening guidelines recommend women have their first Pap test at age 21.
But as the cancer progresses, the following symptoms may appear:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding
- Bleeding between regular menstrual periods
- Bleeding after sexual intercourse, douching, or a pelvic examination
- Menstrual periods that last longer and are heavier than normal
- Bleeding after onset of menopause
- Increased vaginal discharges
- Chronic pelvic pain
- Pain during sex
- Pain during urination
Women should be aware that routine infections or other health-related conditions can also cause identical symptoms. Only a gynecologist can perform the appropriate evaluations and tests to determine whether cervical cancer can be suspected.
In most women with HPV infection, a woman’s immune system is strong enough to keep the virus in check so that it does not grow and take over healthy cervical cells.
However, in a minority of women, the virus is able to survive, grow and cause a population of cells on the surface of the cervix to become cancerous.
National Cervical Cancer Coalition (NCCC), http://www.nccc-online.org/awareness.html
Health Net https://www.hnfs.com/content/hnfs/home/tn/bene/wellness/stayhealthywithhealthnet/cervical_cancer_awareness.html
Please take the time to schedule your annual Pap test, and encourage your friends and family to do the same!