Cervical cancer happens when abnormal cells in the cervix (the passageway from the uterus to the vagina) goes out of control. The most common cause of the growth of this abnormal cells (dysplasia) is a type of Human papilloma virus or HPV, which is acquired by having sexual contact with an infected person. There are 46 types of HPVs, but not all develop to cancer (some can cause genital warts). Cervical cancer is such a slow-developing cancer, you can have HPV and not know it. HPV infection hardly shows any symptoms, and generally, a woman’s body can combat the infection by itself.
Symptoms would only start to manifest when the growth of abnormal cells has led to cancer. Such symptoms are:
Bleeding from the vagina that is not normal (examples: during sex or when you put in a diaphragm)
Pain during sex.
Vaginal discharge that is tinged with blood
Lower abdominal (pelvic) pain
Longer and heavier than usual menstrual bleeding
Bleeding in between menstrual periods
There’s still no conclusive evidence how the HPV can lead to cervical cancer but studies have shown that women are high risk victims if :
they have more than one sex partner, or they have a sex partner who has more than one partner and/or practice unsafe sex
they have used birth control pills for more than 5 years
they smoke and are second hand smokers
they have had many children
they have weak immune system (caused by HIV virus or medications taken that suppresses the immune system)
The initial step in diagnosing cervical cancer is by undergoing Pap tests in which cells are scraped from the cervix for examination under a microscope. Pap tests can, not only find cervical cancer or find abnormal cells that can lead to cervical cancer, but can also detect other inflammation and infections of the endocervix and endometrium.
Generally, Pap tests are not painful except when the woman has certain vaginal problems like cervical stenosis (narrow opening of the cervix) or vaginismus (a condition that causes the vaginal muscles to tense and will inhibit any type of penetration), or if the person performing the pap test is too harsh, or uses the wrong size speculum.
If abnormal cervical cell changes are found early, cervical cancer can be prevented by removing or killing the abnormal cells before they become cancer cells. And if diagnosed, several tests would have to be conducted to determine the stage of cancer what type of treatment is necessary. It is treatable and highly curable, specially when discovered at an early stage. Most patients need surgery (like hysterectomy) only, though radiation or sometimes chemotherapy are suggested if the cancer has spread.
Forty years ago, cervical cancer is the leading cause of death of women in the US, but the mortality has decreased significantly over the years. In 2008, according to the National Institute of Health, 12,410 women in the United States were diagnosed with cervical cancer and 4,008 of them have died according to U.S. Cancer Statistics Working Group.
What can you do to lower your risks? If you are age 26 or younger ( girls as young as 9 years old are recommended to be vaccinated), you can also have yourself vaccinated for protection from the virus. These vaccines are usually given in 3 shots in a period of 6 months and it’s best to consult your obstetrician to know which brand would suit you. Vaccines though, still do not guarantee immunity. If you’re sexually active, you should still have Pap tests done to determine any abnormal cells growth.
If you’re sexually active but is not in the recommended vaccine age group, you can lower your risk by using condoms every time you have penetrative sex or by limiting yourself to one sexual partner. Try not to smoke as smoking doubles the risk of contracting such cancer.
What should you do to prevent this cancer from sneaking up on you? Being vaccinated nor having safe sex does not guarantee that you’ll be safe from cervical cancer. The most effective way to beat it is to detect the growth of abnormal cells at an early stage, and this can only be determined by going through Pap tests. Most women (those who have given birth or sexually active) are advised to have it done once every three years, but if you have high risks, you might be advised to have it done every year.
Talk to your doctor immediately and set up an appointment.