The National Cervical Cancer Coalition says cervical cancer is the second most common type of cancer in women. Fortunately, it is also preventable.
Cervical cancer develops in the cervix, the lower part of the uterus that babies pass through during childbirth. The main risk factor for cervical cancer is having a human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. HPV is found in 99 percent of cervical cancer cases, according to the National Cervical Cancer Coalition. Some strains of HPV, including those that raise the risk for developing cervical cancer, can be prevented through HPV vaccinations. These vaccines are recommended for boys and girls ages 11 to 12. In late 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration expanded the approved use of the Gardasil 9 vaccine so it’s now available for men and women until age 45.
Detecting Cervical Changes
A simple gynecological test called the Pap test, or Pap smear, can help detect cell changes in the cervix. A Pap test is generally recommended for all women between the ages of 21 and 65 every three to five years. More frequent screening may be necessary due to a positive HPV test or cervical test results that are abnormal. Women over 30 with an average cervical cancer risk may elect to combine a Pap smear and an HPV test every five years, according to the American Cancer Society.
During a Pap smear, a sample of cells is collected from the cervix. The cells are sent to a lab for testing. If results are abnormal, an additional exam may be needed to determine if precancerous or cancer cells are present. Precancerous cells can be destroyed through a medical procedure, such as cryotherapy or laser treatment, which reduces the risk of the cells progressing to cancer.
Cervical Cancer Symptoms
The early stages of cervical cancer typically do not have any symptoms. Signs and symptoms of advanced-stage cervical cancer include:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge
- Pelvic pain not related to a menstrual cycle
- Pain during sexual intercourse
Treatment options depend on the stage of the disease but may include surgery, radiation or chemotherapy.
Stages of Cervical Cancer
When doctors determine cervical cancer stages, they look at how far the cells have grown into the cervix, if the cancer has reached nearby structures, and if it has spread to nearby lymph nodes or organs. According to the National Cervical Cancer Coalition, the major stages of cervical cancer are as follows:
- In Stage 0, a group of abnormal cells are forming on the innermost lining of the cervix. Abnormal cells are known as “precancerous.” They’re not yet cancerous, but they may turn into cancer and spread.
- In Stage I, the abnormal cells have developed into cancer cells and spread deeper into the cervical tissue.
- In Stage II, the cancer has spread beyond the cervix but hasn’t reached the pelvic wall.
- In Stage III, cancer cells have reached the pelvic walls or lower portion of the vagina.
- In Stage IV, the cancer has spread to other organs.