by Kimberly Allen, RN
Cervical cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer worldwide. However, in the US it is the 8th most commonly diagnosed caner in women. According to the CDC there are approximately 12,000 women diagnosed with cervical cancer every year in the US. Cervical cancer usually develops in women over 30 years of age.
In the US the Human Papillomavirus or HPV is the most common cause of cervical cancer. There are over 40 types of HPV that can infect the genital area of both men and women. Thirteen of them can cause cervical cancer and one can cause cancer of the vagina and vulva as well as the penis and anus. It can also cause certain head and neck cancers. The types of HPV that cause cancer are not the same types responsible for genital warts. At least 4 out of 5 women will be infected with HPV by the time they are 50 years of age. However, usually your body’s immune system is able to completely get rid of the infection with in 2 years. HPV also affects men and is actually very common in men, however, they rarely have any symptoms. It’s when your body’s immune system is unable to eliminate an HPV infection there’s a problem. Over time it can cause normal cells to mutate into abnormal cells which in turn leads to the development of cancer cells. At least 10% of women that have whats considered “high risk” HPV infections on their cervix develop long lasting infections increasing their risk of developing cervical cancer. HPV is almost always caused by sexual contact with someone that already has it. HPV is one of those infections you can have for years and not know you have it. It can remain in your body for years causing cervical cancer years after becoming infected.
A rule most women with cervical cancer don’t experience any symptoms in the early stages. It isn’t until the cancer progresses that you may experience symptoms including vaginal bleeding that can occur either between periods or after menopause as well as after intercourse. You may also notice a watery, bloody vaginal discharge or drainage which can be heavy as well as have a nasty smell. Many women with cervical cancer also complain of general pelvic pain as well as pain during intercourse.
Treatment for cervical cancer is dependent on several factors. In addition to what stage your cancer is in, your doctor will also consider your overall health including any other health conditions you may have, especially if you already have an autoimmune disorder. Your age and personal preference will also be taken into consideration, particularly if you hope or plan to have children after treatment. The most common treatment is surgery to remove the cancerous tumor, the cervix, and your uterus. This is called a simple hysterectomy and is usually only done when the cancer is in it’s early stage with less than 3mm invasion into your cervix. A radical hysterectomy which involves the removal of the uterus, cervix and vagina as well as the lymph nodes in the area is the standard treatment when your cervical cancer has progressed to more than 3mm into your cervix. Though a hysterectomy can not only cure cervical cancer that is in it’s early stage it can prevent it from returning. However, the removal of your uterus makes it impossible to become pregnant. Your doctor may also recommend following up surgery with radiation and/or chemotherapy. Radiation therapy can be administered both externally using a beam of radiation or internally by planting devices that contain radioactive material near your cervix. Chemotherapy can be used in combination with either surgery or radiation therapy or alone depending on how advanced your cervical cancer is.
Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable cancers diagnosed in Western countries. Regular screening with routine PAP tests can detect any precancerous cells in your cervix which allows them to be treated before they become cancerous. There is also a vaccine that protects you against HPV which is available to girls and women between 9 and 26 years of age. However, this vaccine is most effective when administered before you become sexually active. Other precautionary measures you should take to prevent an HPV infection that can lead to cervical cancer include using a condom every time you have sex, other birth control measures protect against pregnancy but not infection. The fewer sexual partners you have the lower your risk of developing an HPV infection. Also smoking is believed to be linked to cervical cancer so if you’re a smoker you should quit.
Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to HealthAndFitnessTalk.com, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.