Cervical cancer used to be the #1 cancer-related death for women in the 1950s. While the survival rate has increased dramatically since then, it’s still a serious disease. Over 300,000 women worldwide die from cervical cancer every year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Here’s the good news: it is HIGHLY treatable and easy to catch early on. Keep reading to learn the what, where and why of cervical cancer.
What exactly is it?
First, let’s talk about where the cervix is in your body. The cervix the opening to the vagina—aka where you put a tampon or where a baby comes out. It leads to your uterus. Now for what cervical cancer is:
The short version: abnormal cells growing in the cervix.
The long(er) version: according the American Cancer Society, there are two types of cervical cancer: squamous cell carcinomas and adenocarcinomas.
About 90% of cervical cancer is from squamous cell carcinomas—cancer cells that cover the surface of the cervix. Most of the other 10% are adenocarcinomas, which means the cancer starts in the gland cells that make mucus.
“When I was sick, all I wanted to do was get well. I never asked about the cause, except to check if it ran in my family. I learned about a year ago that HPV, a common virus, causes cervical cancer,” actress, Marissa Jaret Winokur, told People magazine.
Marissa, now in remission, went on to give a Tony award-winning performance in the musical, Hairspray, as Tracy Turnblad, and have a son with her husband via surrogacy.
How does it happen?
We don’t know every cause of cancer, but we do know risk factors that can contribute to someone developing cancer. Before we continue, please know that a risk factor does not guarantee you will have cancer, it just increases the likelihood.
According to the University of Michigan, the most common risk factors for cervical cancer are:
- Infection from HPV (Human Papillomavirus)
- Smoking /using tobacco products
- Chlamydia infection
“It lends itself to high survival rates and good quality of life after diagnosis and treatment,” said Dr. Courtney Martin, a physician at Loma Linda University. “While several risk factors that are applicable to your life may increase your chance of developing cervical cancer, it isn’t set in stone that you will get the disease.”
Unfortunately, you don’t have any symptoms in the early stages of cervical cancer. But, in advanced stages you might experience abnormal vaginal bleeding, discharge or pelvic pain during sex. If you are experiencing these symptoms or are concerned, please contact a medical professional.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the stages of cervical cancer are:
- Stage I. Cancer is confined to the cervix.
- Stage II. Cancer is present in the cervix and upper portion of the vagina.
- Stage III. Cancer has moved to the lower portion of the vagina or internally to the pelvic side wall.
- Stage IV. Cancer has spread to nearby organs, such as the bladder or rectum, or it has spread to other areas of the body, such as the lungs, liver or bones.
How is it treated?
Thanks to Pap tests and advances in treatment, women with cervical cancer have a very high survival rate. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says cervical cancer is preventable in most Western countries.
“We didn’t know it was cervical cancer before the surgery [hysterectomy] but we knew something was going on. Caught it just in time, extensive but still in situ. No other treatment necessary,” famous author Judy Blume revealed in a blog post.
The University of Michigan Health says treatments depend on the cancer stage, size of the tumor (if present), a woman’s age and health, and if she wants to have children. If caught early, the common treatments are:
- Cone biopsy to remove the cancerous tissue
- Radical trachelectomy to remove the cervix but not the uterus
If the cancer is discovered at an advanced stage, the common treatments are:
- Radiation and/or chemotherapy
- Hysterectomy to remove the cervix and the uterus
While these treatments can have serious side effects, cervical cancer is HIGHLY treatable when found early.
“It [cervical cancer] made me hypersensitive to other things to get checked for. And I remember one of the oncologists said to me when I was going back to work, ‘It’s really important for you to get some sleep and not stress out,’” Erin Andrews, co-host of Dancing With The Stars, told Health.
How can I prevent it?
The BEST way to prevent cervical cancer is by having your regular Pap test.
The Pap test (or smear) looks for abnormal cells on your cervix. It can detect HPV (Human Papillomavirus) which is an infection in the cervix that can, over time, turn into cervical cancer. And, it can detect pre-cancerous cells before they become cancer. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), you should have a Pap smear every three years (depending on your history) after you turn 21.
We know the Pap smear isn’t exactly the most fun activity (no one loves the stirrups) but it can catch HPV and cervical cancer in their early stages. So please, please, please do it! (Side note: If you’re looking for a new gyne, check out these four tips.)
A second way to prevent cervical cancer is by using a vaccine for HPV, since an HPV infection is directly linked to cervical cancer. But first, please consult a medical professional for vaccine requirements, such as age, weight, health history, etc.
The National Cancer Institute says that the Gardasil®, Gardasil®9, and Cervarix® vaccines prevent infection with two high-risk HPVs that cause about 70% of cervical cancers and an even higher percentage of some of the other HPV-caused cancers.
Important note: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved Gardasil®, Gardasil® 9, and Cervarix® to prevent infection with disease-causing HPV types. You can learn more here about CDC recommendations for these vaccines.
Tying it all together
The word “cancer” is scary and can immediately cause alarm—especially when you think about it being present in your vaginal area. But, thanks to improvements in science and medicine, cervical cancer is highly treatable.
Remember to have your regular Pap smear and consult your healthcare provider with any questions related to cervical health.