Cervical Cancer

What is Cervical Cancer?

Cervical cancer develops in the cells that line the cervix and can spread to other areas of the body. Squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma are the major types of cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer is the fifth most prevalent cancer among women aged 35-54 within the United States.

Cervical cancer is the most prevalent form of cancer in some developing countries.  The majority of cervical cancers result from chronic infections with certain types of the human papillomavirus that are transmitted sexually. However, not all forms of the human papillomavirus cause cervical cancer. In fact, some types of the human papillomavirus  only cause genital warts.  It’s important for women to get regular Pap exams in order to find changes in cervical cells that may lead to cancer.  Advanced stages of cervical cancer are marked by bone fractures, weight loss, back pain, and leakage of urine or feces from the vagina.

What are the Symptoms of Cervical Cancer?

General hints for cervical cancer include unusual bleeding from the vagina after sex, after menopause, and between menstrual periods.  Some symptoms may also include painful sexual relations, unusual discharge from the vagina, and pain within the area of the pelvis and lower belly.

Noticeable symptoms are not manifest during the early phase of cervical cancer.  Women are advised to begin receiving Pap smears to detect for abnormal cervical cells as early as 21 years of age.

Cervical Cancer Causes

About 90% of cervical cancer cases are directly caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). Other risk factors include cigarette smoking and the long-term use of oral birth control, but HPV’s role is so significant that many doctors believe it is required in order for cervical cancer to develop. There are over 150 known varieties of HPV, and not all are equally predictive of cervical cancer; doctors have identified 15 strains as certainly high-risk, and 12 as particularly low-risk. HPV types 16 and 18 are the most dangerous, accounting for at least 70% of cervical cancer cases. Ultimately, doctors don’t definitely know all the causes of cervical cancer, but agree that HPV is the single most significant risk.

How is Cervical Cancer Treated?

Treatment for cervical cancer is based upon the stage of the disease.

Treatments include

Surgery, chemotherapy, targeted-therapy, and radiation therapy may be used in treating cervical cancer.  Treatment for cervical cancer may also vary according to the patient’s age, physical condition, and whether or not the patient desires to have children.

Early detection of HPV (human papilloma virus) and Pap tests may prevent the cancer to form or spread. Additionally, an HPV vaccine can protect against certain types of papilloma viruses and therefore, it represents an important form of prevention. However, since an HPV vaccine cannot provide protection against all types of viruses, screening is essential also for women  who have been vaccinated.

Cervical Cancer Prevention

The most important way to avoid cervical cancer is to avoid HPV. HPV is virtually always sexually transmitted, giving us yet another reason to practice safe sex; it can, on occasion, be transmitted from mothers to their babies during childbirth. Contrary to urban legend, HPV cannot be spread via toilet seats.

Fortunately, vaccines to protect against the most dangerous strains of HPV have been developed in recent decades. Clinical trials have shown that Gardasil and Cervarix, manufactured by Merck and GlaxoSmithKline respectively, are nearly 100% effective in treating HPV types 16 and 18. These vaccines must be administered prior to any exposure to the disease, so it’s recommended that they’re given to both boys and girls before puberty.

Even in patients who practice safe sex and receive an HPV vaccine, regular screenings for HPV and tumors remain critically important. Cervical cancer often causes few symptoms in early stages, so screenings should be a regular part of gynecological checkups. The Papanicolaou test, more commonly called the Pap smear, has greatly reduced the mortality from cervical cancer across the world; doctors recommend receiving one every three to five years, and have any unusual results followed up with a biopsy.

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Last Reviewed:
September 13, 2016
Last Updated:
November 29, 2017
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