Understanding cervical cancer

Cervical cancer occurs in the cells of the cervix – the lower part of the uterus – and is most often caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted disease.

All women are at risk for cervical cancer, but it is most common in women over 30. For most people who contract HPV, their immune system will keep it from doing harm. But, if HPV survives, there is a chance it may cause cervical cancer.

What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?

There often are no signs or symptoms of cervical cancer in the early or precancerous stages. As the cancer becomes more invasive, symptoms can include:

  • Vaginal bleeding (after sex, in between periods or after menopause)
  • Vaginal discharge
  • Pain during sex

You should make an appointment with your doctor if you notice any of these symptoms.

What are the risk factors for cervical cancer?

HPV is the main cause of cervical cancer, but there are other factors that can increase your risk of cervical cancer, including:

  • HIV/AIDS
  • Smoking
  • Long-term use of birth control
  • Having given birth to 3 or more children
  • Many sexual partners

How to reduce the risk of cervical cancer

Pap and HPV tests

Regular screening tests beginning at the age of 21 are the most important part of preventing cervical cancer. There are 2 types of screening tests that can be done in a doctor’s office or clinic:

  • Pap tests (or Pap smears) look for precancerous conditions, which can then be monitored and treated. Depending on your age, your doctor will likely recommend a Pap test every 3 years if your test result comes back as normal.
  • HPV tests look for the virus that can lead to cervical cancer. Depending on your age, your doctor will likely recommend an HPV test every 5 years if your test result comes back as normal.

Your doctor will share your test results with you once they’re ready (usually around 3 weeks). If the test results come back as  abnormal, it usually does not mean you have cervical cancer. Often it is due to something your doctor is able to treat and, in most cases, will help keep cervical cancer from developing. It is important to follow up with your doctor immediately to find out what kind of treatment is required.

HPV vaccine

Another method of reducing the risk of cervical cancer (as well as other cancers) is the HPV vaccine. You should ask your doctor if the HPV vaccine is right for you.

As well as tests and vaccines, practicing safe sex and limiting your number of sexual partners may also reduce your risk of cervical cancer. Smoking is another risk factor for cancer – talk to your doctor about ways to stop smoking for good.

Cervical cancer: diagnosis & treatment

If you have been diagnosed with cervical cancer, you should ask your doctor to refer you to a cervical cancer specialist – a gynecologic oncologist – who will help create a treatment plan.

Depending on the type of cervical cancer and how far it has spread, treatments will differ:

  • Surgery to remove cancerous tissue
  • Chemotherapy to kill or shrink the cancer with medication
  • Radiation to kill the cancer with high-energy rays

Your doctor, or team of doctors, will be able to explain the benefits and possible side effects of each treatment so you feel comfortable with the decision and treatment plan.

Complementary treatments

The treatments outlined above focus on the cancer itself. Doctors often recommend other treatments and medications in addition to the treatment targeting the cancer. These medications can help to boost your immune system and provide relief from some symptoms.