Cervical cancer: Causes, risk factors and prevention

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Approximately 12,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, with more than 4,000 deaths attributed to the condition. Globally, cervical cancer is the third most common cancer in women.

Hispanic women are twice as likely to develop cervical cancer, and 1.4 times more likely to die from it, compared to non-Hispanic White women.

Like most other cancers, cervical cancer is caused by unregulated, abnormal cell growth on the cervix. For those not familiar with female anatomy, the cervix is what connects the lower part of the uterus to the vaginal canal. This part of the female reproductive system regulates the passage of fluids from the uterus to the vaginal canal or vice versa. It is an area of the body prone to issues including inflammation, polyps, dysplasia (precancerous cells), and cancer.

  • Who is at risk for cervical cancer?

Thanks to advanced screening methods and annual pap smears, detection and prevention of cervical cancer has decreased the prevalence among women in the United States. Known as a slow-growing malignancy, cervical cancer usually begins with pre-cancerous cells called dysplasia. At this stage, it can be treated and 100 percent eradicated.

Cervical cancer exam

Known as a slow-growing malignancy, cervical cancer usually begins with pre-cancerous cells called dysplasia. At this stage, it can be treated and 100 percent eradicated. Regular visits to your gynecologist are the best way to prevent developing cancer.

Risk factors for cervical cancer include:

  • Skipping regular pap smears or gynecological visits
  • Women not vaccinated against HPV
  • Women with a compromised immune system
  • Women whose mothers took diethylstilbestrol in the 1960s to prevent miscarriage
  • Women over the age of 30
  • Ethnicity – Hispanic women are twice as likely to have cervical cancer.

Most cervical cancers are associated to HPV, the human Papilloma virus.  This is the most common sexually transmitted virus in the United States. There is the HPV strain, the strain that causes genital warts, or a strain that causes no symptoms at all.

Because of the high incidence of HPV-related cervical cancer, a woman’s sexual activity habits puts her in a higher or lower risk group depending on the number of partners she is involved with.

While HPV is a sexually transmitted virus, it is so common the National Cancer Institute states more than 50 percent of adults have been exposed to it at some time, with the majority of cases resolving on their own. Those that don’t resolve are the cases that can evolve into cervical cancer.

Prevention should come in the form of regular visits to the gynecologist as well as a healthy diet and active lifestyle.

  • How can you tell if you have cervical cancer?

Because of how slowly cervical cancer develops, most women do not show symptoms. It’s often through yearly screenings and pap smears that abnormal cells are detected.

Gynecologist visits

Because of how slowly cervical cancer develops, most women do not show symptoms. It’s often through yearly screenings and pap smears that abnormal cells are detected.

If cervical cancer progresses and is not detected through tests, women may experience:

  • Break-through bleeding between menstrual periods
  • Bleeding after intercourse, pelvic exams, or a douche
  • Bleeding after menopause
  • Pain during sex
  • Abnormal vaginal discharge
  • Pelvic pain

The National Cancer Institute cautions the mentioned symptoms are not cervical cancer-specific, and many other health issues can result in symptoms such as pelvic pain and abnormal bleeding. Adenomyosis and endometriosis for example are two other female reproductive issues with many of the same symptoms of cervical cancer.

  • How can I be sure it’s cervical cancer?

While pap smears will indicate abnormal cells, only a biopsy will definitively tell if cervical tissue has cancer cells. Usually done under a local anesthetic, a doctor will use a punch biopsy, a LEEP loop, a curette, or a cone biopsy to sample a small section of tissue.

Cone biopsies are sometimes more involved, allowing a pathologist to view the cells within the cervix instead of those just on the surface. This procedure may be done in a hospital under general anesthesia.

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  • I definitely have cervical cancer, now what?

A diagnosis of cervical cancer is not as simple as saying cancer is present in the cervix, end of story.

A doctor will need to stage the cancer, determining how advanced the condition has become. To do this, imaging of the chest will be taken to evaluate the heart and lungs for cancer cells. MRI and CT scans may also be used to search the entire body for suspicious regions.

The stages of cervical cancer are:

  • Stage I: Cancer has not progressed beyond the cervix
  • Stage II: Cancer had grown beyond the cervix into adjacent tissue or the vagina or uterus
  • Stage III: A cancer tumor has progressed through the pelvic wall and may be obstructing the kidneys
  • Stage IV: Cancer has moved from the cervix to the bladder, rectum, or a distant organ like the lungs

 

Cervical cancer progression

Like most other cancers, cervical cancer is caused by unregulated, abnormal cell growth on the cervix. (Shutterstock images)


  • Cervical cancer treatment

Depending on the stage of cervical cancer, treatment will involve surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of the three.

Ninety-three percent of women with early-stage cervical cancer make it past a 5-year survival period. Those with Stage IV cancer have a 15 percent survival rate out to five years from diagnosis.

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