This blog article originally appeared on the UVM Medical Center's HealthSource blog and was reprinted with permission.
January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. Learn what you need to know about risk factors, symptoms, how it is diagnosed and what the treatment options are for cervical cancer.
What is the cervix?
The cervix is the lower part of the uterus that opens into the vagina.
What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer can develop if abnormal cells in the lining of the cervix begin to grow out of control. The most common cause of cervical cancer is HPV (human papillomavirus) infection. Learn more about Cervical Cancer.
What are the risk factors for cervical cancer?
Even though HPV is an important risk factor for cervical cancer, most women with this infection do not get cervical cancer. Doctors believe other risk factors must be present for this cancer to develop, including:
- A history of smoking
- Using birth control pills for more than five straight years
- Having many full-term pregnancies
- Sexually transmitted infections, such as:
- HIV infection (human immunodeficiency virus)
- Inconsistent health care
- Family history
What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?
Early cervical pre-cancers or cancer often have no signs or symptoms. That’s why it’s important for women to have regular Pap tests. Symptoms usually appear when the cancer is further along.
You should tell your doctor right away if you have:
- Any unusual discharge from the vagina (not your normal period)
- Blood spots or light bleeding other than your normal period
- Bleeding or pain after sex, douching, or after a pelvic exam
Of course, these symptoms may not mean that you have cancer. They can also be caused by something else, but you must check with your doctor to find out.
How is cervical cancer diagnosed?
Screening is simple — regular Pap tests and HPV tests. Both tests can be done at the same time by your doctor. The Pap test is part of your regular pelvic exam and is performed when the doctor scrapes a few cells from your cervix and looks at them under a microscope. Getting a Pap test takes just a few minutes. Your doctor scrapes a few cells from your cervix and places them on a slide. The slide is then sent to a lab to be examined under a microscope to see if there are any abnormal changes in the cells that could lead to cancer. Get more information on Cervical Cancer Screening.
What is the treatment for cervical cancer?
The type of cervical cancer, and how advanced it is, determines your treatment options. A hysterectomy (surgical removal of the uterus) is often the first recommendation for women with early stage gynecologic cancer.
The three main cervical cancer treatments are:
Sometimes the best approach is to use two or more of these methods. If a cure isn’t likely, the goal may be to remove or destroy as much of the cancer as possible to keep it from growing for as long as possible.