Congress deemed January Cervical Cancer Awareness Month—just in time to make a resolution to schedule a yearly gynecological exam. According to the Foundation for Women's Cancer, cervical cancer was once the number one cause of cancer deaths in women. Thanks to scientific advances, it is now a highly preventable disease. Women, their caregivers, and family members can educate themselves about the various facets and risk factors of cervical cancer.
What is Cervical Cancer?
Cervical cancer begins in the tissues of the cervix. The cervix is located in the lower end of the uterus and connects the uterus to the vagina. The cancer progresses slowly and there are often no signs or symptoms.
There are two main types of cervical cancer. Squamous cell carcinoma occurs in the epithelial cells that line the outer-part of the cervix closest to the vagina. The second common type, adenocarcinoma, begins in the cells that line the inside of the cervix closest to the uterus.
Who Gets Cervical Cancer?
Any woman can develop cervical cancer. However, according to the National Cancer Institute, the majority of cervical cancer cases are caused by a human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. HPV is an extremely common virus passed from person to person through sexual activity. Therefore, women who have engaged in sexual activity are especially susceptible. Cervical cancer typically occurs in women over the age of 30.
What are the Risk Factors that can lead to Cervical Cancer?
- HPV – According to the National Cervical Cancer Coalition, is one of the most common infections in the world. In fact, up to 80% of sexually active people are estimated to have an HPV infection at some point in their lifetimes. However, most HPV infections are harmless and resolve on their own.
- Multiple sexual partners.
- Smoking, which increases the risk of HPV, thwarts the ability to ward off infection and lessens the effectiveness of treatment.
- A weakened immune system, especially due to HIV medications.
- Family or personal history of cervical cancer.
- Multiple pregnancies.
- Prolonged use of birth control pills.
- Exposure to diethylstilbestrol, a synthetic estrogen that was developed to supplement a woman's natural estrogen production, in the womb.
- Not receiving annual Pap tests.
What are the Signs and Symptoms?
Those with cervical cancer rarely exhibit any symptoms. However, in some cases when the cancer has invaded deeper areas of the cervix, signs may include:
- Vaginal discharge or abnormal bleeding.
- Strange vaginal odor.
How Can Cervical Cancer be Prevented?
The most effective way to prevent cervical cancer is through routine gynecological exams that include a Pap test and, for women over age 30, the Pap can be combined with an HPV test. HPV tests only need to be given in women over 30 because HPV is extremely common in women in their 20s but usually harmless and cleared naturally by the immune system. HPV in a woman over 30 is typically not dangerous but is more likely to be a “persistent” infection her body and isn’t as likely to clear.
Cervical cancer rarely reaches a life-threatening stage with regular testing. Controlling risk factors such as quitting smoking, limiting the number of sexual partners, and using condoms, can also be effective in preventing the disease. The HPV vaccine, for women between 13 and 26 years old, can drastically reduce the chances of cervical cancer. For additional information about cervical cancer prevention, please visit The National Cervical Cancer Coalition and The American Social Health Association.
How is Cervical Cancer Treated?
In most cases when women have regular exams, the cancer is detected while it's still in pre-cancer form. A colposcopy and biopsy are then typically performed to confirm the diagnosis. Pre-cancerous areas are monitored or the cells are removed through procedures such as a LEEP biopsy.
In later stages, cervical cancer treatments can include a hysterectomy, chemotherapy, or radiation treatment. However, treatment doesn't usually call for these drastic measures if detected early. With early treatment, the prognosis is typically good.
It's important to note that cervical cancer is the only form of gynecological cancer that can be completely prevented by regular screening. Women, their caregivers, or family members can start the New Year off right by making routine visits to the gynecologist a priority. Being aware of risk factors and scheduling screening tests appropriately can essentially eliminate the chances of cervical cancer.
If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with cervical cancer and needs assistance at home, contact your local Maxim Healthcare Services office to learn more about how we can help with in-home nursing for cancer patients.
This information is not meant as a substitute for professional medical or nutritional advice and consultation. When differences exist between the information here and information given to you by your healthcare provider(s), you should follow the advice of your healthcare provider(s). Any additional information or clarification needed should be sought from the Physician, Practitioner, Speech Pathologist, or Nutritionist who is familiar with the individual’s health and medical conditions.