Before looking at what causes cervical cancer, it’s important to understand cancer of the cervix. The cervix is the tissue that connects the uterus with the vagina. Cervical cancer happens when the cells that make up the cervix begin to grow out of control. These cancerous cells can eventually spread to other tissue in the body.
What are the risks factors for cervical cancer?
There are many risk factors that can increase your chance of developing cervical cancer. Although these risk factors can increase your chance, there are many women with increased risk factors who never develop the disease. However, it’s important to know the risks in order to address any factors that you may be able to change and receive regular screening to detect potential cervical cancer early.
- Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection
- Sexual history
- A weakened immune system
- Chlamydia infection
- Long term use of birth control pills
- Having multiple full-term pregnancies
- Young age at first full-term pregnancy
- A diet low in fruits
- Having a family history of cervical cancer
What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?
Symptoms of cervical cancer often do not begin until the cancer has progressed and grown into nearby tissue. The most common symptoms of cervical cancer are:
- Bleeding or spotting between or following periods
- Heavy or irregular periods
- Increased vaginal discharge
- Bleeding after menopause
- Persistent pelvic or back pain
- Swelling in the legs
- Problems urinating or having a bowel movement
- Blood in the urine
If you have these symptoms or any other ongoing gynecological issues, you should speak to your doctor even if you think they may be a sign or a less serious condition. The sooner a diagnosis can take place, the better the outcome.
How is Cervical Cancer Diagnosed?
In many women with early stage cervical cancer, there are no symptoms; Which is why it’s so important to have regular screenings for cervical cancer. These screenings may consist of an HPV test, Pap test, or a combination of both.
- Pap Test
The Pap test is the most common screening for cervical cancer. During a Pap test, cells are gently brushed or scraped from the cervix and are examined under a microscope to check for precancerous cells or other abnormalities.
- HPV Test
The HPV test looks for high-risk or cancer-causing types of human papilloma virus by looking for the virus’s DNA in cervical cells. This test can be done at the same time of the Pap test. Your doctor may recommend the HPV test if your Pap test was abnormal or if you are over the age of 30.
Can cervical cancer be prevented?
The best way to prevent cervical cancer is to get screened. Routine screenings can find pre-cancers before they develop into invasive cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends all women begin cervical cancer screenings at age 21. Women between the ages of 21 and 29 should then have a Pap test every three years. Testing for HPV may then be conducted if an abnormal Pap test is found. Women between the ages of 30 and 65 should have both a Pap test and an HPV test every five years. Women who are at high risk for cervical cancer may need to be screened more frequently. You should talk to your doctor if you believe you fall into a high-risk group.
You can also protect yourself from developing cervical cancer by getting the HPV vaccine. Since human papillomavirus virus is one of the risk factors for developing cervical cancer, vaccinating against it can significantly lower your chance. These vaccines are available to both males and females from childhood into young adulthood. It should be noted that the vaccine will not treat an HPV infection that is already there, only prevent an infection from occurring.
Learn more about cancer screening and prevention at Ochsner.