Published January 13, 2012
Cervical cancer is diagnosed in over half a million women a year, making it the third most common type of cancer in women, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Cancer in your cervix begins as a precancerous condition called dysplasia — which is curable and easily detected with a simple gynecological exam procedure used to inspect reproductive tissue samples. This process, known as a pap smear, can help prevent cervical cancer from developing or stop the progression of this dangerous disease.
Found in the lower part of the uterus or womb, the cervix is the central passageway of a woman’s reproductive system. Blood exits through the cervix when a woman is menstruating, and sperm moves through the cervix to enter the uterus for egg fertilization. Cells in the cervix reproduce and expire on a regular basis, but when the cells multiply at an out-of-control rate, tumors can form and progress into cervical cancer. Malignant growths are cancerous tumors, which may spread to other parts of the body and pose a fatal threat if left untreated.
Cervical cancer is a progressive disease, which means it gets worse over time. The phases of cervical cancer are described in “stages,” which benchmark the effects of the disease. Stage I cancer is only present in the cervix, although the malignant cells have gone beneath the top layer of cervical tissue. Stage II cells have spread to the upper part of the vagina, possibly affecting the walls of your pelvis. Stage III tumors have reached the lower part of the vagina. Stage IV cancer has metastasized or broken off and traveled to the bladder, rectum or other parts of the body. Recurrent cancer refers to cancer that returns after a completed treatment regimen.
In its earliest stages, cervical cancer does not present any symptoms. As the tumor grows, women may start to witness signs, primarily abnormal vaginal bleeding. The bleeding may occur between menstrual periods, after sex or a pelvic exam and even while a woman is in menopause. Periods may last longer or be heavier. Cervical cancer can also cause pelvic pain, pain during sex and an increased amount of vaginal discharge. These inconclusive symptoms may also suggest an infection or other underlying health condition such as uterine fibroids. A woman experiencing any of these symptoms should consult with a doctor.
While the primary cause remains unknown, a number of risk factors may make one woman is more likely to develop cervical cancer than another. According to the NCI, Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection accounts for almost all cases of cervical cancer. HPV infections are commonly transmitted through sexual contact. Women who do not regularly receive pap smears are more vulnerable to abnormal cell development, as pap tests detect anomalous cells for removal. A weak immune system, due to HIV infection or immune system suppressant medications, also increases the risk for cervical cancer.
Prevention and treatment
In addition to regular pap smears, HPV vaccines are the foremost means for preventing cervical cancer. If cancer does develop, the course of treatment will vary depending on how far the disease has progressed. The three primary options are surgery, radiation therapy or chemotherapy. Surgery is typically an option for women with stage I or stage II cancer and usually entail the removal of any tissue possibly containing cancer cells. For example, the surgeon may perform a total hysterectomy and remove both the cervix and uterus. Radiation therapy utilizes high-energy rays to target and kill cancer cells, and it can be used for cancer in any stage. Chemotherapy involves the use of medications to combat rapidly growing cancer cells.