What is Cervical Cancer?
Cervical cancer occurs when abnormal cells develop and spread in the cervix, the lower part of the uterus. More than 12,000 new cases are diagnosed each year in the U.S. A unique fact about cervical cancer is that most cases are triggered by a type of virus. When found early, cervical cancer is highly curable.
Symptoms of Cervical Cancer
When cervical cells first become abnormal, there are rarely any warning signs. As the cancer progresses, symptoms may include:
- Unusual vaginal discharge
- Vaginal bleeding between periods
- Bleeding after menopause
- Bleeding or pain during sex
Top Cause for Cervical Cancer: HPV
The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a large group of viruses. About 40 types can infect the genital areas, and some have high risk for cervical cancer. Genital HPV infections usually clear up on their own. If one becomes chronic, it can cause changes in the cells of the cervix. And it's these changes that may lead to cancer. Worldwide, over 90% of cervical cancers are caused by an HPV infection.
Symptoms of HPV
HPV infections usually have no symptoms and go away on their own. Some types of HPV virus may cause genital warts, but these are not the same strains linked to cervical cancer. It's important to note that genital warts will not turn into cancer, even if they are not treated. The dangerous types of HPV can stay in the body for years without causing any symptoms.
How HPV Causes Cervical Cancer
If one of the high-risk strains of HPV lingers in the body, it can cause abnormal cells to develop in the cervix. These precancerous changes do not mean that you have cervical cancer. But over time, the abnormal cells may give way to cancer cells. Once cancer appears, it tends to spread to the cervix and surrounding areas.
What Else Raises Your Risk?
Hispanic and African-American women have higher rates of cervical cancer than Caucasian women. The risk is also higher in infected women who:
- Have many children
- Use birth control pills for a long time
- Are HIV positive or have a weakened immune system
Early Detection: Pap Test
The pap test is one of the great success stories in early detection. A painless swab of the cervix can reveal abnormal cells, often before cancer appears. At age 21, women should start having a Pap test ever three years. From age 30 to 65, women who get both a Pap test and an HPV test can go up to give years between testing. But women at higher risk may need testing more often, so it's best to check with your doctor. Skipping tests raises your risk for invasive cervical cancer.
What If Your Pap Test Is Abnormal?
If test results show a minor abnormality, you may need a repeat Pap test. Your doctor may schedule a colposcopy – an exam with a lighted magnifying device – or biopsy to get a better look at any changes in the cervical tissue. If abnormal cells are precancerous, they can then be removed or destroyed. Treatments are highly successful in preventing precancerous cells from developing into cancer.