The cervix is a hollow cylinder that connects the lower part of a woman’s uterus to the vagina. Most cervical cancers begin in cells on the surface of the cervix. Many women with cervical cancer do not even realise that they have the disease early on as it usually does not exhibit symptoms until the later stages. When symptoms do appear, they can be easily mistaken for common conditions like menstrual periods and urinary tract infections (UTIs).
Typical cervical cancer symptoms are:
- Abnormal uterine bleeding
- Vaginal discharge that looks or smells different than usual
- Pain in the pelvis
- Needing to urinate more often
- Pain during urination
Most cervical cancer cases are caused by the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV). This is the same virus that causes genital warts. The two types that most commonly cause cancer are HPV-16 and HPV-18.
Other risk factors include:
- Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection
- Chlamydia infection
- Family history of cervical cancer
- Poor diet
- Taking birth control pills
- Having three full-term pregnancies
- Teen pregnancy
Cervical cancer has four stages:
- Stage 1:
The cancer is small. It may have spread to the lymph nodes. It has not spread to other parts of the body.
- Stage 2:
The cancer is larger. It may have spread outside of the uterus and cervix or to the lymph nodes. It still has not reached other parts of the body.
- Stage 3:
The cancer has spread to the lower part of the vagina or to the pelvis. It may be blocking the ureters. It has not spread to other parts of the body.
- Stage 4:
The cancer may have spread outside of the pelvis to organs like the lungs, bones or liver.
A pap smear is a test doctors use to diagnose cervical cancer. To perform this test, the doctor collects a sample of cells from the surface of the cervix. These cells are then sent to a lab to be tested for precancerous or cancerous changes. If the results show any changes, the doctor may suggest a colposcopy, a procedure done to examine the cervix. It is recommended that women who are 30 years and above should undergo a pap test once every three years until the age of 65 years.
Cervical cancer is very treatable if caught early. The four main treatments are:
- radiation therapy
- targetted therapy
The purpose of surgery is to remove as much of the cancer as possible. Sometimes the doctor can remove just the area of the cervix that contains cancer cells. For cancer that is more widespread, it may require removing the cervix and other organs in the pelvis.
One of the easiest ways to prevent cervical cancer is through regular screening with a pap smear and/or hrHPV test. Screening picks up precancerous cells, so they can be treated before they turn into cancer. Vaccination can help prevent HPV. Other ways to reduce the risk of HPV and cervical cancer is by limiting the number of sexual partners and always using protection during intercourse.