What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer develops in the tissues of the cervix, which connects the uterus and vagina. Typically, the disease develops slowly. Over time, the cells can spread throughout the cervix and to surrounding areas.
Risk factors for cervical cancer
There are several risk factors for cervical cancer, many of which are lifestyle choices. These risk factors include:
- Early sexual activity
- History of sexually transmitted infections, including human papillomavirus (HPV)
- Many sexual partners
- Weak immune system
You can reduce your risk for cervical cancer by quitting smoking and having routine Pap tests and gynecological exams. Regular Pap tests are the best way to detect cervical cancer early, when it’s most treatable. If you are not in a monogamous relationship, use a condom every time you have sex to reduce your risk of contracting HPV.
Girls and young women can reduce future risk of cervical cancer by getting vaccinated against HPV and delaying the first time they have sex. Talk to your daughter’s pediatrician about the HPV vaccine.
Diagnosing cervical cancer
An abnormal Pap test can signal cervical cancer or another disease or infection. During a Pap test, cells are scraped from the cervix. A specialist then examines the cells under a microscope to look for abnormalities.
Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV, an incredibly common sexually transmitted infection. Most women who have had sexual intercourse likely have contracted HPV and didn’t even know it. HPV usually causes no symptoms or damage to the body. However, in a small percentage of women, the virus causes some cells on the surface of the cervix to turn into cancer cells.
If your doctor suspects cervical cancer, they’ll ask about your medical history, conduct a pelvic exam, and perform additional testing, if necessary.
Cervical cancer treatment
Cervical cancer treatment recommendations depend on the stage of your cancer, as well as your overall health and family history. The stage of your cancer helps the doctor recommend an effective course of treatment.
The four stages of cervical cancer are:
- Stage I: Cancer is in the cervix only.
- Stage II: Cancer is in the cervix and nearby tissue, such as the upper part of the vagina.
- Stage III: Cancer has moved beyond the cervix to the pelvic wall or lower portion of the vagina.
- Stage IV: Cancer has spread to nearby organs, such as the bladder or rectum, or to farther other areas of the body, such as the lungs, liver, or bones.
For early stage cervical cancer, your doctor may recommend a hysterectomy, in which the uterus is surgically removed along with the ovaries, fallopian tubes, and cervix, if necessary. Sometimes the lymph nodes are also removed. Radical trichology is another surgical option for patients with early stage cancer who want to become pregnant in the future.
Depending on your condition, chemotherapy or radiation therapy may be included in your care plan to destroy any cancer cells that may remain after surgery.
Follow-up care after surgery typically includes physical exams, pelvic exams, Pap smears, X-rays, and laboratory tests.