Cervical cancers begin in the cervix, which is a tube-like structure that serves as the passageway between the uterus and the vagina. Cervical cancer is the only gynecologic cancer that can be screened for using a test—this is the Pap smear test. Cervical cancer is not only detectable with screening, but it can also be prevented through a vaccine.
Risk Factors For Cervical Cancer
Most women who get cervical cancer are older than age 30, and the average age at diagnosis is age 50, which is ten years younger than the average age at diagnosis for other types of gynecologic cancer. The most significant risk factor for developing cervical cancer is a chronic infection with specific types of human papillomavirus (HPV). This is a common virus that is spread through sexual contact, such as vaginal, anal, or oral sex.
Other risk factors for cervical cancer, aside from an HPV infection, include:
- Having a history of chlamydia infection
- Being overweight or obese
- Using birth control pills for an extended period of time (5 or more years)
- Having a first pregnancy at younger than 20 years old
- Having given birth to three or more children
- Having multiple sexual partners
- Not having regular cervical screening tests
- Having a history of exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES), a drug that was used before 1971 to prevent miscarriages
- Having a family history of cervical cancer
Symptoms of Cervical Cancer
Like many other gynecologic cancers, early cervical cancer may not have any associated symptoms. However, as cervical cancer progresses, you may experience the following symptoms:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge, particularly bleeding after sexual intercourse, or bleeding after you have started menopause
- Pelvic pain
- Pain with sexual intercourse
- Changes in urination or bowel patterns
Screening For and Diagnosis of Cervical Cancer
A cervical cancer diagnosis is made by looking at the cells of the cervix via a biopsy, or tissue sample. Cervical cancer can be detected early by the presence of abnormal-looking cells on a screening Pap smear test. When your medical provider conducts a Pap smear, he or she may also do an HPV test to check for the presence of the virus that is the most common cause of cervical cancer.
The following are screening recommendations for cervical cancer:
- For women ages 21 to 29 years old: Pap tests should start at age 21 and continue every three years unless the test is abnormal.
- For women ages 30 to 65 years old: Depending on your health history and your healthcare provider, you may have a Pap test every three years, an HPV test every five years, or a “co-test” (both tests together) every 5 years.
- For women greater than 65 years old: Cervical screening exams may be stopped if you have had normal exams in the past or if you have had your cervix surgically removed.
Treatment of Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer can be treated with surgery (ranging from a cone biopsy to a hysterectomy), chemotherapy, radiation, targeted therapy, immunotherapy, or a combination of these methods. Your particular treatment will depend on the nature of your cancer and how far it has progressed. For more information about treatment options of cervical cancer, make sure to visit the American Cancer Society.