Cervical cancer facts and risks
A diagnosis of cervical cancer may be frightening for you and your family. The discovery of cancer immerses you into a new world of medical treatment and language. Mission Hospital is here to help you face this challenge with education, compassionate support, and treatment.
About 11,000 women in the US will get cervical cancer each year. Most of those women are under 35. The good news is that there is a cervical cancer vaccine that can prevent this virus.
What is it?
Cervical cancer begins in the cervix, a small organ connecting the uterus and vagina. It is usually slow-growing and may not exhibit symptoms. However, a regular Pap test will find the majority of cervical cancers. Cervical cancer is almost always caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infection.
HPV is a family of viruses that cause cervical cancers and other issues such as genital warts-there are more than 100 strains of HPV, but only about 35 infect the genital tract. It is rare for this virus to lead to cervical cancer; most often the body's immune system destroys the infection.
The HPV virus is transmitted through sexual intercourse and sexual contact. Both men and women may become infected with the type of virus that causes cervical cancer, and most people do not know they have it because there are usually no symptoms. It is the most common sexually transmitted disease-in fact about 70% of sexually active people will have HPV in their lives.
Prevention and early detection Cervical cancer is the only gynecological cancer that can be prevented with regular screening. It can be detected early through a common Pap test, a simple procedure that saves the lives of 70% of women who might have died without the test. A Pap test consists of scraping cells from the cervix and examining them under a microscope.
In addition to regular Pap tests, these actions also help protect you from cervical cancer. If you are eligible, you may receive the cervical cancer vaccine which is recommended for 11-12 year old girls and approved for females 9-26. Because this cancer is almost always caused by an HPV infection, you should get an HPV test when recommended; this test can tell you if you have one of the HPV types more likely to cause cervical cancer. If you have one of these types of viruses, you should get an HPV vaccine (also called a cervical cancer vaccine.)
Cervical cancer usually does not show symptoms until it is growing into nearby tissue. At this stage common symptoms include:
- Unusual vaginal discharge
- Spotting or light bleeding outside of a normal menstrual cycle
- Bleeding after menopause
- Bleeding or pain during sex
Other symptoms may include anemia, pelvic, bleeding from rectum, leg or back pain, weight loss, and urinary problems. Contact your physician right away if you have these symptoms, but you should know that there are many other reasons for these symptoms.
Any woman who has sex can get cervical cancer, but women at highest risk are those who are infected with a high risk HPV virus that persists for years. The women most at risk are those who do not have regular exams that include a Pap test. Your risk for cervical cancer also increases with smoking, HIV infection, multiple sexual partners, family history, and age when you first had intercourse.
Diagnosis and treatment
A Pap test is very effective in diagnosing cervical cancer and it is usually part of your regular checkup that also includes a pelvic exam. Your physician may also perform an HPV test, imaging tests, a biopsy, and other procedures.
In most cases treatment for cervical cancer includes surgery or radiation. Chemotherapy may also be used. Talk with your physician before undergoing any treatment to determine what's best for you, and ask about any clinical trials that you could consider.
Support and resources
Mission Hospital provides support throughout your treatment, and you will find many online resources for education and support. Some of these include: