Cervical Cancer: Preventable and Treatable

Cervical Cancer large

Thanks to improvements in screening and prevention, the good news is that cervical cancer is no longer the leading killer it once was. Today, cervical cancer is highly preventable and treatable — if you get regular screenings.

“Still, it’s important for all women to know the facts about this disease, because knowledge leads to prevention, which will help the numbers to drop even further,” says Michael Guy, MD, with Premier Gynecologic Oncology. “While cervical cancer is most common in women over 30, it can happen at any age.” 

For most women, cervical cancer is very treatable if caught early.

Causes

The cervix, where cervical cancer originates, is the lowest and most narrow portion of the uterus. The cervix connects the vagina to the uterus, and is the part that dilates during labor.

Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by a high-risk type of human papilloma virus (HPV) that enters the cervix through the vagina. “HPV is passed from person to person during vaginal, anal or oral sex,” explains Dr. Guy. “If the infection doesn’t go away on its own, it can lead to cervical cancer.”

When combined with an HPV infection, these things can further increase your risk of cervical cancer:

  • Smoking
  • Having HIV or another condition that causes reduced immunity
  • Taking birth control pills for five years or longer
  • Having given birth to three or more children
  • Having several sexual partners

Symptoms

Early on, cervical cancer usually has no symptoms. As the cancer grows, women may notice:

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding
  • Bleeding between regular menstrual periods
  • Bleeding after sexual intercourse, douching or a pelvic exam
  • Periods that are longer and heavier than in the past
  • Post-menopausal bleeding
  • Increased vaginal discharge
  • Pelvic pain
  • Pain during sex

Screening

Cervical cancer is usually detected via a Pap test. During this test, your doctor uses an instrument called a speculum to widen your vagina. This allows her to examine the vagina and the cervix, and collect a few cells and mucus from the cervix and the area around it. The cells are then sent to a laboratory for examination. You can also be tested for HPV at this time if you are between the ages of 30 and 64. 

The Office of Women’s Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers the following guidelines on how often you need a Pap test. However, since this depends somewhat on your age and health history, talk with your doctor about what is best for you. 

  • Between the ages of 21 and 29, you should get a Pap test every three years.
  • Between 30 and 64, you should get a Pap test and HPV test together every five years or a Pap test alone every three years.
  • If you are 65 or older, ask your doctor if you can stop having Pap tests.

And these screening guidelines are suggested for women who have had a hysterectomy:

  • If you no longer have a cervix because you had a hysterectomy for reasons other than cancer, you do not need Pap tests.
  • If you had a hysterectomy because of abnormal cervical cells or cervical cancer, you should have a yearly Pap test until you have three normal tests.
  • If you had your uterus removed but you still have a cervix (a rare occurrence), you need regular Pap tests until you are 65 and have had three normal Pap tests in a row, with no abnormal results in the last 10 years.

TreatmentCervical Cancer small

For most women, cervical cancer is very treatable if caught early. “Treatment varies depending on the kind of cervical cancer and how far it has spread,” explains Dr. Guy. “This could include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.”

Prevention

Cervical cancer is highly preventable because of Pap tests, says Dr. Guy, but also thanks to two vaccines developed in recent years to protect against the types of HPV that cause cervical cancer. 

Both vaccines are recommended for 11- and 12-year-old girls, and for females ages 13 through 26 who did not get any or all of the shots when they were younger. These vaccines also can be given to girls as young as nine years of age. 

Women who are vaccinated against HPV still need to have regular Pap tests to screen for cervical cancer. 

Other recommendations to help prevent cervical cancer include:

  • Stop smoking (or don’t start)
  • Using condoms during sex
  • Limiting your number of sexual partners.

If you and your doctor are concerned that you might have cervical cancer, set up an appointment with a gynecologic oncologist. These are doctors who specialize in cancer of the reproductive system, and they can quickly implement an action plan to help you beat this uniquely female disease.

Small Steps: Bring a friend.
When you meet with your doctor to talk treatment options, bring a friend or family member. Your supporter can take notes, ask questions or just be there for you.