January is cervical cancer awareness month (and for good reason!) – there are 13,000 women diagnosed with this disease each year.
Despite the high number of diagnoses, and thanks to modern medical advances and preventative screenings, cervical cancer has become one of the most preventable forms of cancer. Take care of your health by staying informed and by having a yearly gynecological wellness exam.
Here’s what you should know about cervical cancer to lower your risk of contracting the disease.
Cervical Cancer Defined
Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that occurs in a woman’s cervix, which is the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina.
Typically, cervical cancer is the result of an infection caused by the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). When an HPV infection is left untreated for many years, it can cause mutations in the nearby cells, resulting in cancer. Luckily, modern preventative treatments and screenings have lessened the risk of long-lasting HPV infections and, in turn, reduced the number of women who are diagnosed with cervical cancer. That doesn’t mean, however, that you shouldn’t be on your guard.
Cervical Cancer Symptoms
You might think that because most forms of cervical cancer are the result of a long-lasting HPV infection that you would notice an issue before the disease progressed. Unfortunately, early stage cervical cancer and the preceding HPV infection generally do not produce any symptoms.
Those who are further along in the disease’s progression might notice a few symptoms, including:
- Unusual vaginal bleeding after intercourse, between periods, or after menopause
- Watery, bloody vaginal discharge with a foul odor
- Pelvic Pain either during intercourse or when using menstrual devices like tampons or menstrual cups
Typically, these symptoms don’t begin until the patient moves beyond Stage 1 (explained below).
Stages of Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer is often broken into five stages based on what kind of cancerous cells are present and where these cells are found in the body. The five stages are as follows:
- Stage 0: Precancerous cells are present on the surface of the cervix
- Stage 1: Cancerous cells are present in deeper cervical tissue but are isolated in the cervix and uterus
- Stage 2: Cancerous cells have moved beyond the cervix and uterus but have not spread to the walls of the pelvis
- Stage 3: Cancerous cells are now present in the walls of the pelvis or the lower part of the vagina
- Stage 4: Cancerous cells have now moved beyond the woman’s pelvis and have affected the bladder and rectum
During a pelvic exam, your gynecologist will most likely be able to diagnose cervical cancer before it enters stage 2, increasing your survival rate. Beyond a yearly visit to your gynecologist, understanding your level of risk can also help prevent the spread of cervical cancer.
Risk Factors for Developing Cervical Cancer
There are a variety of factors that can increase your risk of contracting cervical cancer, which include:
- Having multiple sexual partners
- Practicing unsafe sex
- Being overweight
- Having a compromised immune system
- Contracting a STD
- Not vaccinating against common varieties of HPV
If you believe you may be at an increased risk for cervical cancer, talk to your gynecologist about decreasing the time between screenings or other preventative measures you can take to decrease your risk.
Cervical Cancer Treatment Options
There are a variety of treatments available for those who are diagnosed with cervical cancer, which include:
The type of treatment prescribed depends on what stage of cervical cancer you have, whether or not the cancer has metastasized, and if you would like to have children in the future. Work with your doctor to determine the best course of treatment for your needs.
Preventative Treatments and Screenings
While it can be scary to think about the possibility of developing cervical cancer, the good news is that there are a variety of very effective preventative measures you can take to lower your risk.
One of the most effective forms of prevention for cervical cancer is the HPV vaccine. This vaccine has been specially formulated to protect you against the most common forms of HPV that cause cancer and genital warts. Most women will receive this vaccine between the ages of 9-14, before they are sexually active. However, if you have not received this vaccine, talk with your doctor today about whether you are eligible to receive the treatment.
Along with the HPV vaccine, having a yearly pap smear will greatly reduce your chances of developing cervical cancer. At these yearly visits your doctor will test for the early stages of the HPV infection and, if it is detected, can administer treatment immediately, stopping the infection from mutating your cells. Your gynecologist will also test for cancerous cells as part of your exam. If any mutated cells are found, you doctor will remove them, preventing them from multiplying and causing cancer in the future.
Tying it all together
For cervical cancer, prevention and awareness are your best defenses. Remember to stay current on your gynecological screenings and always practice safe sex.