Overview of Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer originates in the cervix. The cervix is the area that is located in the lower part of the uterus. In most cases, Human Papillomavirus (HPV), the sexually transmitted infection, causes cervical cancer. When the body has been exposed to HPV, the immune system will typically take care of it, but in some cases, the body will let the virus live for a few years which changes the cervical cells into cancer cells.
Symptoms of Cervical Cancer
In the early stages of cervical cancer, there are no symptoms typically seen. Once the cancer has advanced, there are a few symptoms that may be found. You may notice bleeding between cycles, after menopause, or after intercourse. In some cases, vaginal discharge may occur and will be heavy, watery, bloody, and may have an odor. Lastly, you may notice pain during intercourse. You will want to consult with your physician if you see any symptoms that concern you.
Causes of Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer occurs when healthy cervix cells turn into cancer cells. Cancer cells multiply and never die, which then creates a mass. There is no real cause of cervical cancer, but it is believed that people with HPV are at a higher risk for developing cervical cancer. There are many types of environmental factors and lifestyle choices that will decide if you have cervical cancer or not.
Types of Cervical Cancer
There are two main types of cervical cancer. The type of cervical cancer that you have will decide on the treatment that is recommended. Squamous cell carcinoma is the type of cervical cancer that begins in the squamous cells. The squamous cells are a thin, flat lining on the outer part of the cervix. This is the most common type of cervical cancer.
Adenocarcinoma is the type of cervical cancer that begins in the glandular cells that line the cervical canal.
In some cases, both of these types are involved in cervical cancer. Rarely does the cancer occur outside of the cervix.
Risk Factors of Cervical Cancer
If you have HPV, then you are at a higher risk for cervical cancer. So, if you have many sexual partners, have any Sexually transmitted infections (STIs), or begin in sexual activity at an early age, then you are at a high risk of cervical cancer. It is best to avoid these as best as possible. You are also at a high risk if you have a weakened immune system, smoke, or have been exposed to the drug called diethylstilbestrol.
Preventing Cervical Cancer
The best way to prevent cervical cancer is to ask your physician about the HPV vaccine. This vaccine will help reduce the risk of cervical cancer and other cancers that are associated with HPV-related cancer. Your physician will be able to discuss if and which HPV vaccine is right for you.
Having a routine pap can aid in early detection of cervical cancer or other conditions of the cervix which may lead to cancer. You should begin this testing by the age of 21, or when recommended by your physician.
If you smoke, then you will want to quit smoking as soon as possible. If you do not currently smoke, it is important to not start.
Diagnosing Cervical Cancer
Screening for cervical cancer is the most important step in treating cancer. The screening age for cervical cancer is typically 21 years old, but your physician may recommend another age. Screening will aid in looking for cancer or precancerous conditions. There are a variety of screening tests that may occur.
A pap test is a common annual exam that may be done. A pap occurs when the doctor scraps and brushes the cells within the cervix. They are then examined for any abnormalities.
The HPV Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) test collects cells from the cervix and tests them for an infection, such as HPV.
If it is suspected that you have cervical cancer, then your physician will want to do a more thorough examination of the cervix. There is a special magnifying instrument, or a colposcope, which is used to check for these abnormal cells. During this colposcopy exam, your physician will take a biopsy and will test it in the lab. There are two ways that cells can be obtained. A punch biopsy uses a sharp tool to pinch off samples of the cervical tissue. A endocervical curettage uses a small spoon-shaped instrument, also called a curet, or brush to scrape off a tissue sample. If either of these tests are not approved by you, your physician may recommend a few other tests.
An electrical wire loop uses a small, low-voltage wire to take a small sample. This is done under anesthesia. A cone biopsy, also called a conization, is a procedure that is done to obtain deep layers of the cervical cells.
If these tests come back and you have cervical cancer, then the next step is to figure out which stage of cancer it is to decide on what treatment plan will be done. An imaging test, such as an x-ray, computerized tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or positron emission tomography (PET) is used to see if the cancer has spread outside of the cervix. A visual exam may also be done. In this type of exam, the physician will use a special scope to see inside of the bladder and rectum.
Treatment of Cervical Cancer
Treatment of cervical cancer will depend on the individual, the physician, the stage, your overall health, and preferences. There are three main types of treatment that is available, which includes surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. In some cases, a combination of the three may be used.
Surgery is typically done in early-stage cervical cancer. Surgery can be done a few ways. In small cervical cancer, surgery can be used to cut away the cancer only, the entire cervix, or the entire cervix with the uterus.
Radiation uses high-powered energy beams to kill off cancer cells. This is typically used with chemotherapy to treat the cervical cancer. This may be used after surgery has been done to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back.
Chemotherapy is a drug used to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy in cervical cancer is typically used in low doses with another type of treatment.