What is cervical cancer?
Like most cancer, cervical cancer starts when the cells in the cervix, the lower part of the uterus (womb), start growing out of control. New cells develop rapidly, creating a tumor in the cervix.
Cervical cancer is one of the most popular cancers in women over the world. However, a routine Pap test can help to find out cervical cancer risk early. Cervical cancer can be often cured when it is found early. Moreover, there are methods to control the risk of cervical cancer, which is why the number of cervical cancer cases is decreasing.
What are the causes of cervical cancer?
Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by human papillomavirus or HPV. This virus is often passed between human through sexual contact.
There are over a 100 types of cervical cancer, but most of them are harmless. In fact, most adults have HPV at some point in their life. Some types of HPV can cause no symptom at all, some may cause genital warts, and some can lead to cervical cancer. Two strains of the HPV virus (HPV 16 and HPV 18) are known to be responsible for 70% of all cases of cervical cancer. These types of HPV infection do not have any symptoms, so many women will not realize that they have the infection.
HPV can easily be found by a Pap test. That’s why Pap test is so important to prevent cervical cancer. A Pap test can find the difference in cervical cells before they turn into cancer. If you heal these cell changes, you may defend against cervical cancer.
Who is at risk of cervical cancer?
While most people have HPV, there are things that can increase your risk of cervical cancer. Some of them are:
Human papillomavirus infection: Having sexual contact with many partners can increase your risk of getting HPV 16 and 18.
Smoking: Tobacco contains many chemicals that can harm the body. Women who smoke are about twice as likely as non-smokers to get cervical cancer.
Immunosuppression: Medication or conditions that affect the immune system, such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes AIDS, can increase the risk of getting HPV infection and lead to cervical cancer.
Chlamydia infection: Some studies have seen the higher risk of cervical cancer in women whose blood test results show evidence of past or current chlamydia infection.
A diet low in fruits and vegetables: Women whose diets don’t include enough fruits and vegetables may be at increased risk for cervical cancer.
Being overweight: Overweight women are more likely to develop adenocarcinoma of the cervix.
Long-term use of oral contraceptives (birth control pills): There is evidence that taking oral contraceptives (OCs) for a long time increases the risk of cancer of the cervix.
Intrauterine device use: A recent study found that women who had ever used an intrauterine device (IUD, a device that is put into your uterus to prevent pregnancy) had a lower risk of cervical cancer.
Having multiple full-term pregnancies: Women who have had 3 or more full-term pregnancies will have an increased risk of developing cervical cancer.
Being younger than 17 at your first full-term pregnancy: Women who were younger than 17 years when they had their first full-term pregnancy are almost 2 times more likely to get cervical cancer later in life.
Poverty: Poverty prevents women from having access to adequate health care services, including Pap tests.
DES is a hormonal drug that was given to some women to prevent miscarriage. Mothers who use this drug during pregnancy often have the higher risk of cervical cancer. Daughters of these women are at higher risk as well.
Having a family history of cervical cancer
Cervical cancer may run in some families. If your mother or sister had cervical cancer, your chances of developing the disease are 2 to 3 times higher than if no one in the family had it.
Signs and symptoms
What are the signs and symptoms of cervical cancer?
At early stages, women with early cervical cancers and pre-cancers don’t experience symptoms. Cervical cancer will not show its symptoms until the tumor is developed. By then, it may push on the nearby organ and invade healthy cells. Symptoms of cervical cancer may include:
- Bleeding from the vagina that is abnormal, such as bleeding between menstrual periods, longer period, after or during sex, or after menopause, bleeding after the bowel movement or after a pelvic exam.
- Pain in the lower belly or pelvis.
- Pain during sex.
- Vaginal discharge that is not normal, such as it may contain some blood.
There are other conditions, such as an infection, that can cause these symptoms. However, whether the cause, you should still get a doctor to check your symptoms. Overlooking them might only make the condition worse and thus missing your chance of an effective treatment.
Even better, do not wait for symptoms to appear. The best way to make sure your genital is happy and well is to have regular Pap tests and pelvic exams.
What are the complications of cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer often lead to some complication in other parts of the body. If you have cervical cancer, you might have a risk of:
- Kidney failure: Tumor from liver cancer can press on the ureters – a tube that leads urine out of the body from the kidney. The buildup urine in the kidney can lead to kidney failure.
- Blood clots: Tumor can press on the blood vessels to the legs, slowing down the blood flow and lead to the blood clot in the legs.
- Fistula: Cervical cancer can develop a fistula (a hole in the intestine wall) between the vagina and the rectum.
Diagnosis and tests
How is cervical cancer diagnosed?
Doctor usually use Pap test to diagnose cervical cancer. Your doctor may do other tests to look for precancerous or cancer cells on your cervix if the Pap test shows malfunctioned cell changes such as a biopsy.
Your doctor may refer you to a gynecologist (the health of the female reproductive systems) if the test result shows any abnormalities, or if they notice a growth inside your cervix or if you have abnormal bleeding.
It is worth notice that bleeding in from the vagina does not always mean cervical cancer. Chlamydia is one of the most common reasons why women experience unusual vaginal bleeding. Your doctor may recommend that you are tested for it first before being referred.
Some other tests that might be needed to confirm that you have cervical cancer are:
- Colposcopy: A small microscope with a light source at the end (colposcope) is used to examine your cervix.
- Cone biopsy: This small procedure is done under analgesia. A small, cone-shaped section of your cervix will be removed to be examined. After that, you may experience vaginal bleeding for up to four weeks after the procedure. You may also have period-like pains.
When your doctor is sure that you have cervical cancer, the nest thing they want to do is check how to advance the cancer is. These tests may include:
- Checking your womb, vagina, rectum and bladder for cancer. This procedure is performed under analgesia.
- Blood tests to check the condition of surround organs such as bone, blood, and kidney.
- Computerized tomography (CT) scan, Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, x-ray and Positive emission tomography (PET) scan are called imaging tests. Imaging tests are designed to identify cancerous tumors and decide whether cancerous cells have spread
Treatment and management
What are the treatments for cervical cancer?
Treatment for cervical cancer is complex. Therefore, your hospital will assemble a team of professionals specified in treating early stage cervical cancer as well as advanced cervical cancer. While it is ideal to treat cervical cancer at early stages, but it is usually not diagnosed soon enough.
Generally, there are three main treatment options for cervical cancer: surgery, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy.
This treatment will remove any parts that are infected by cancer. You and your medical team should work together for the best treatment:
- Radical trachelectomy – the cervix, surrounding tissue and the upper part of the vagina are removed, but the womb is left in place.
- Hysterectomy – the cervix and womb are removed; depending on the stage of cancer, it may also be necessary to remove the ovaries and fallopian tubes. You won’t be able to have children if you have a hysterectomy.
- Pelvic exenteration – a major operation in which the cervix, vagina, womb, bladder, ovaries, fallopian tubes and rectum are removed.
In early stages of cervical cancer, you can be treated with radiotherapy alone or combined with surgery. Later on, when the cancer is advanced, your doctor may recommend radiotherapy combined with chemotherapy to reduce bleeding and pain for the patient.
In this treatment, your body are exposed to radiation. The source of radiation can be external, meaning there is a machine that shoots radiation at you, or internally. In this internal method, an implant will be put inside your body to give off radiation. There are cases where the two methods will be combined. A course of radiotherapy usually lasts for around five to eight weeks.
Chemotherapy can be used alone or in combination with radiotherapy to treat cervical cancer. In advanced cancer, this method is often used to prevent cancer from developing. You will have an appointment to get your dose of chemotherapy via the intravenous drip.
Al treatment cervical cancer can have side effects. You should discuss with your doctor first about them. You might expect early menopause, narrowing of the vagina or lymphedema after treatment.
How can I manage my cervical cancer?
Having cancer can be a difficult challenge for you to pass it alone. Talking with family, friends or a counselor can really help and it’s better if you ask your doctor about support groups.
The Pap test is the best way to find cervical cell changes or HPV in your cervix. It is important to follow-up with your doctor after any abnormal Pap test result so you can have treatment in time.
If you are under 26, you can get HPV vaccine, which will give protection against two types of HPV 16 and HPV 18, two types of HPV that can cause cervical cancer.
Avoid getting infected by HPV by having safe sex, such as using condoms and limiting the number of sex partners you have.
Learning that you have cancer can change your life. You may feel like your world has been turned upside down and you have lost all control. However, cervical cancer is treatable. If you notice signs that may point to cervical cancer, consult your doctor immediately.
Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
Review Date: December 12, 2016 | Last Modified: September 11, 2019