The cervix connects the upper portion of the uterus to the vagina. Cervical cancer typically occurs in the lining of the cervix. Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is thought to be a major contributor to the development of cervical cancer. Early detection increases the success of the treatment. There are also ways to reduce the risk of developing cervical cancer in the first place.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 12,000 annual cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed in the United States. This gynecological cancer usually occurs after 30, but younger women can also develop cervical cancer. While HPV contributes to cervical cancer, a person who has HPV won’t necessarily get cervical cancer. According to the CDC, at least 50 percent of people who are sexually active contract HPV, but only a fraction of those women will develop cervical cancer.
Symptoms often don’t occur until the cervical cancer reaches a more advanced stage. The symptoms generally revolve around vaginal bleeding and discharges. Abnormal vaginal bleeding that occurs between your periods or after sexual intercourse is a possible symptom. A discharge that is watery with some blood is another possible symptom. Pain in the pelvic area is also a reason to check with your doctor.
If a pap test detects abnormal cells in the lining of the cervix, additional tests to diagnose cervical cancer are likely. A colposcopy is an examination of the cervix to look for abnormal areas. A biopsy is likely if the colposcopy reveals abnormalities. The biopsy takes a sample of the tissue for further analysis. A punch biopsy takes a small round section of tissue, while a cone biopsy takes a deeper sample of tissue. When cervical cancer is diagnosed, more tests determine the stage of the cancer and whether or not it has progressed to other areas. This is usually done with CT scans, MRIs or X-rays.
The stage of the cervical cancer affects the course of treatment. In the early stages, the treatment might include removal of the affected areas of the cervix. This is achieved through different procedures, including cone biopsies, laser surgery, loop electrosurgical excision procedure or freezing the cells in cryosurgery. For more advanced cases, the patient might have a hysterectomy, which is the removal of the uterus and cervix. Radiation and chemotherapy are also treatment options.
A vaccine against HPV reduces the risk of cervical cancer. The vaccine is often administered around age 11 or 12 but can be given up to age 26, preferably before having sex for the first time. A condom during sexual encounters reduces the risk of contracting HPV. Waiting to have sex and limited your partners also keeps your risk lower. Pap tests help catch cell abnormalities in the cervix at the early stages.