Cervical cancer is one of five main types of cancer that affect a woman’s reproductive organs. Here’s what you should know about it – and what you can do to protect yourself.
By Grace J. Humbles
Cervical cancer, which is cancer that starts in the lower, narrow part of the uterus, happens most often in women 30 years or older, though all women are at risk. Unlike many other types of cancer, it’s not passed down through family genes. Rather, virtually all (up to 99%) cervical cancer cases occur in women who are carrying, or have previously carried human papillomavirus (HPV), the most common sexually transmitted disease in the U.S.
The National Cervical Cancer Coalition (NCCC) says that each year there are around 14 million new cases of HPV, and more than 12,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer annually. However, the outlook is not as bleak as it may first appear. Cervical cancer is preventable, because, as the NCCC reports, it doesn’t spring up all at once—it takes time to develop and grow.
What are symptoms of cervical cancer? Early cervical cancers and pre-cancers usually have no symptoms. The American Cancer Society says that typically, symptoms only appear when a pre-cancer has become more invasive and grown into nearby tissue. “If it has gotten to that point and there are symptoms, the most common symptom is bleeding, and specifically, bleeding with intercourse,” says
Dr. John Adams, an OB-GYN with Women’s Health Services. “The only other symptoms that a woman will typically have are those associated with spread of cancer beyond the uterus, like pain and pressure.”
How does HPV cause cervical cancer? Most of us have heard of the link between HPV and cervical cancer, but not many of us understand how the two are connected. According to the American Cancer Society, there are more than 150 types of HPV. While most forms aren’t life-threatening, there are around 12 “high-risk” types that can increase your risk for cancer.
However, even most high-risk HPVs do not ultimately cause cancer, because the body is great at fighting off infection; the immune system will typically prevent the virus from doing serious harm. But in a small proportion of women, a high-risk HPV can lead to a persistent infection in the cells of the cervix. If this viral infection lasts for years, it can lead normal cells on the surface of the cervix to convert into cancerous cells. “Our immune system is constantly working to suppress HPV at the cervix, but it’s possible for a pap test to detect HPV or an HPV-related abnormality at the moment that it’s not being fully/optimally suppressed,” says Dr. Kristi Angevine, an OB-GYN with University Women’s Services. “If the abnormality is major, there is a higher chance it will persist or turn into something worse.”
Way to Fight Back #1: Routine Screenings
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are two types of screening that can help prevent cervical cancer or find it early: pap testing and HPV testing.
Pap Test. During your pap, your doctor will collect cells from your cervix and runs tests to see if there are any abnormalities. Be sure to keep up with your annual gynecological visits to make sure you are being screened regularly. “Under all circumstances we recommend yearly well-woman exams,” says Dr. Adams. “From there, a woman and her physician can agree on the appropriate level of screening based on her unique risk factors and previous test results.”
HPV Test. HPV testing, which can be done at the same time as your pap, looks for high-risk HPVs in the cells from your cervix. Current guidelines from the American Cancer Society recommend that women between the ages of 30 and 65 have both a pap test and an HPV test every 5 years.
Screening may seem like another routine or mundane thing to add to your calendar, and many women may wonder if they really make a difference. But the fact is, if you do have cervical cancer, catching it early is key to avoiding extensive and painful treatment. “If the cancer is found when it’s confined to the cervix, you can do a hysterectomy and be cured,” says Dr. Adams. “Once the cancer has traveled to the uterus, the prognosis is not as good. That’s why these exams are so important!”
Way to Fight Back #2: Get the Vaccine
Two HPV vaccines are available to protect women against the types of HPV that cause most cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers: Gardasil® and Cervarix®. “Both offer protection from HPV types 16 and 18, which are responsible for 70 to 75% of all cases of cervical cancer,” says Dr. Angevine. “However, Gardasil® is often used because it covers four strains of HPV, including the types that most frequently lead to cancer and warts.”
It’s important for girls or women to receive the vaccine before they have sexual contact and are exposed to HPV, because once infected with HPV, the vaccine might not be as effective or might not work at all. That’s why the CDC recommends the HPV vaccine for girls as early as age 11 to 12, though it can be given as early as age 9. It’s also recommended for girls and women ages 13 to 26 who did not get it when they were younger.
Way to Fight Back #3: Safer Sex
For sexually active women, participating in a mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who is HPV-free will also go a long way to prevent any development of HPV in your own body. The Mayo Clinic says that the greater your number of sexual partners – and the greater your partner’s number of sexual partners – the higher your risk for HPV. Condoms are also highly recommended as a way to help prevent the spread of HPV, but while they reduce your risk, used alone they cannot perfectly prevent the viruses.
The start of a new year often brings new goals, aspirations, and a new vigor for life. Let your goals for the New Year include taking preventative measures to ensure your own cervical health—become informed, consider vaccination, and talk to your doctor about how you can keep your cervix healthy.