January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. It’s a perfect opportunity to spread awareness about cervical cancer, including its prevention, screening, and treatment.
In the United States, about 13000 new cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed each year and about 4000 women die from the disease. Hispanic women have the highest rates of developing cervical cancer and Black women have the highest rates of dying from it. This is because of cancer health disparities such as lack of access to cervical screenings and follow up of abnormal test results.
Fortunately, cervical cancer is preventable and treatable. There’s a vaccine that reduces risk by up to 99%, screening tests to detect early disease and effective treatments.
It’s important to maintain regular visits with a healthcare provider to make sure you get the best prevention and treatment available, says Dr. Damian Alaga, a board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist and Senior Medical Director of Women’s Health at Quest Diagnostics.
Here’s what to know about this condition and how you can help prevent it.
What is Cervical Cancer?
The cervix is the lowest part of the uterus (womb). Cervical cancer is a condition where the cells of the cervix multiply uncontrollably and migrate to other parts of the body, where they continue to multiply.
What causes cervical cancer?
The human papillomavirus (HPV) is responsible for 99% of cervical cancer cases. Anyone with a cervix has a risk of developing cervical cancer. It takes about 10–15 years for cervical cancer to develop in people without immune system problems. But 5–10 years in people with a weakened immune system, for example if they are living with HIV.
Certain factors increase your cervical cancer risk, including;
- Having a weakened immune system: This can make it hard for your body to fight off HPV infections. For example, if you have HIV, diabetes, or another disease that weakens your immune system. Or if you take medication that limits your immune response. For example, if you treat an autoimmune disease, recently received an organ transplant or take cancer treatment.
- Smoking cigarettes or breathing second hand smoke: Inhaling cigarette smoke is linked with a higher risk of several cancers including those of the lung, mouth, skin, throat, and cervix.
- Become sexually active before 18 years: If you started having sex before 18 years, you have a higher cervical cancer risk.
- Other reproductive factors: For unknown reasons, women who take birth control pills and those who have many children have a higher cervical cancer risk.
- Exposure to DES: Diethylstilbestrol (DES) is a drug that was given to women to prevent miscarriage and preterm labor between 1940 and 1971. Women who were exposed to this drug in the womb because their mothers took it, have a higher risk of cervical and vaginal cancers.
Cervical cancer symptoms
Cervical cancer seldom causes symptoms until it is very advanced. However, possible symptoms of cervical cancer include:
- Weight loss
- Leg swelling
- Pain—in the pelvic area, in the abdomen, in the back. During sexual intercourse, when peeing or pooing.
- Menstrual irregularities—heavy periods, irregular periods, spotting
- Vaginal bleeding or abnormal discharge, foul smelling discharge, bleeding after sex
If you experience any of these symptoms, it’s a good idea to seek your doctor to help diagnose and treat the cause.
Prevention and screening
Cervical cancer can be prevented through HPV vaccination and caught early through screenings such as the Pap test.
Prevention: Cervical cancer can be prevented by taking the HPV vaccine. HPV vaccines are suitable for both boys and girls from age 11–12 years. But you can take them from 9 years and up to 45 years. If you are older than 45, you can discuss taking the vaccine with your care team.
Screening: Cervical cancer screening is recommended for all women from age 21 upwards. Women aged 21 – 29 years should get a Pap test every three years. Those from 30 to 65 years should get a Pap test every three years, an HPV test every five years or a combination of the two. After 65 years, you should discuss continued testing with your care team.
In a large study, it was shown that 90% of girls who took the HPV vaccine were protected from cervical cancer.
When cervical cancer is diagnosed early, the 5-year survival rate is 92%. But it is 59% if diagnosed after the cancer has spread to nearby tissues, organs or lymph nodes. At early stages of cervical cancer, the cervix can be removed to cure the disease and prevent recurrence.
Cervical cancer can be prevented, treated and even cured as long as this is done early. Awareness, screening, and vaccination are vital for preventing this condition. Humanity is set to eradicate cervical cancer in a few generations. You can be part of this by protecting yourself and supporting cervical cancer awareness.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cervical cancer statistics
- World Health Organization. Cervical cancer.
- American Cancer Society. Risk factors for cervical cancer.
- National Cancer Institute. Cervical cancer symptoms
- Centers for Disease Control and prevention. What can I do to reduce my cervical cancer risk?
- National Cancer Institute. Large study confirms that HPV vaccines prevents cervical cancer.
- National Cancer Institute. Cervical cancer prognosis.