What is cervical cancer? Cervical cancer, or cancer of the cervix, begins in the lining of the cervix. There are two main types of cancer of the cervix — squamous cell carcinomas and adenocarcinomas.
About 80% to 90% are squamous cell carcinomas, while 10%-20% are adenocarcinomas. If the cancer has characteristics of both kinds of cancer, it is called mixed carcinoma.
What are the risk factors for cervical cancer?
In many cases, cervical cancer can be linked with known risk factors for the disease. Some risk factors can be avoided, while others cannot. Some risk factors include:
An irregular screening history — Women who have not regularly had a Pap test (smear) are at increased risk of cervical cancer. In particular, many women over age 60 have not had regular Pap tests and are at increased risk.
HPV Infection — Some types of human papillomavirus (HPV) are transmitted sexually and can infect the cervix. Cervical infection with HPV is the primary risk factor for cervical cancer. However, only a very small percentage of women infected with untreated HPV will develop cervical cancer.
Sexual History — Females who begin having sexual intercourse before the age of 16 and females who have had many sexual partners are at a higher risk of HPV infection and developing cervical cancer. The prevention of sexually transmitted diseases reduces the risk of cervical cancer.
Smoking — Cigarette smoking is associated with an increased risk of cervical cancer.
HIV Infection— Women who have been infected with HIV have a higher-than-average risk of developing cervical cancer.
Diet — Several studies have suggested that various micronutrients, such as folic acid and vitamins C and E, may reduce the risk of cervical cancer.
What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?
Early stages of cervical cancer do not involve pain or other symptoms. The first identifiable symptoms of the disease are likely to include:
Watery or bloody vaginal discharge that is sometimes heavy and that has a foul odor.
Vaginal bleeding after intercourse, between menstrual periods, or after menopause.
Menstrual periods that may be heavier and last longer than normal.
If the cancer has spread to nearby tissues, symptoms may include:
Difficult or painful urination, sometimes with blood in urine.
Diarrhea, or pain or bleeding from the rectum upon defecation.
Fatigue, loss of weight and appetite.
A general feeling of illness.
Dull backache or swelling in the legs.
If the abnormal bleeding, vaginal discharge, or any other symptoms last more than two weeks without explanation, you should have a complete gynecological examination that includes a Pap smear.
Cervical cancer diagnosis
Together, pelvic exams and Pap smears can detect most cases of cervical cancer. For an accurate diagnosis, your doctor will visually examine the cervix and take a tissue sample of any apparent abnormality for biopsy.
If the biopsy confirms cancer, further tests will determine whether the disease has spread (metastasized). These tests might include liver and kidney function studies; blood and urine tests; and X-rays of the bladder, rectum, bowels, and abdominal cavity. This process is called staging.
The stages of cervical cancer
Stage 0 — Cancer is found in the first layer of cells lining the cervix and is not found in the cervix’s deeper tissues. This stage also is called carcinoma in situ.
Stage I — Cancer is found only in the cervix.
Stage II — Cancer has spread beyond the cervix but has not yet spread to the pelvic wall (the tissues that line the part of the body between the hips).
Stage III — Cancer has spread to the lower third of the vagina and may have spread to the pelvic wall and nearby lymph nodes.
Stage IV — Cancer has spread to the bladder, rectum, or other parts of the body.
How is cervical cancer treated?
The treatment team for a woman with cervical cancer will include a gynecologic oncologist (doctor who specializes in cancers of women’s reproductive organs). Treatment for cervical cancer is based on factors including the stage of the disease, the age and general health of the woman, and the woman’s desire for future childbearing. The three main treatments for cervical cancer are radiation, chemotherapy and surgery. Some people may have a combination of treatments. Radiation or chemotherapy may be used to treat cancer that has spread beyond the pelvis (Stage IV) or cancer that has recurred.
There are two kinds of radiation treatment:
a device loaded with radioactive pellets which is placed into the vagina near the cancer and kept in place for a certain period of time, or
an external device which beams radiation into the target areas during visits to the radiotherapist.
A variety of chemotherapeutic drugs, or combinations of them, are used. Sometimes radiation and chemotherapy are used before or after surgery.
Different kinds of surgery are used to treat for cervical cancer. Some of the most common kinds of surgery for cervical cancer include:
Cryosurgery — This surgery technique uses an instrument to freeze and destroy abnormal tissue. The technique is used to treat pre-invasive cancer of the cervix.
Laser surgery — This surgery uses a laser beam burn off cells or to remove a small piece of tissue for study.
Cone biopsy — A surgery in which a cone-shaped piece of tissue is removed from the cervix.
Simple hysterectomy — This surgery involves the removal of the uterus but not the tissue next to the uterus. The vagina and the pelvic lymph nodes are not removed.
Radical hysterectomy and pelvic lymph node dissection — With this surgery, the uterus, upper part of the vagina, and lymph nodes from the pelvis are removed.
In its earliest stages, the disease is curable by removing or destroying the pre-cancerous or cancerous tissue. In other cases, a simple hysterectomy or a radical hysterectomy can be performed. In the most advanced cases of cervical cancer, pelvic exenteration is performed.
What are the survival rates for cervical cancer?
In women with invasive cervical cancer that is caught at the earliest stage, the 5-year relative survival rate is nearly 100%. If the cancer is slightly more advanced but has not spread to lymph nodes or elsewhere, the survival rate is 92%. The overall 5-year relative survival rate for cervical cancer is about 71%. The rate takes into account all stages of the cancer combined.
Can cervical cancer be prevented?
Women can take some measures to prevent cervical cancer. Receiving regular gynecological exams and getting Pap tests are the most important steps that women can take toward the prevention of cervical cancer. See the “risk factors” section for additional cervical cancer prevention tips.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends the following Pap test guidelines:
All women should begin cervical cancer screening no later than when they are 21 years old. Screening should be done every 2 years in women with no history of abnormal Paps. More frequent screening may be needed if any abnormal cells are found or if HPV is present.
Beginning at age 30, women who have had 3 normal Pap test results in a row may get screened every 3 years with either the conventional (regular) or liquid-based Pap test if they are HPV negative. Women who have certain risk factors such as diethylstilbestrol (DES) exposure before birth, HIV infection, or a weakened immune system due to organ transplant, chemotherapy, or chronic steroid use should continue to be screened annually.
Another reasonable option for women over 30 is to get screened every 3 years (but not more frequently) with either the conventional or liquid-based Pap test, plus the HPV DNA test.
Women 65-70 years of age or older who have had 3 or more normal Pap tests in a row and no abnormal Pap test results in the last 10 years may choose to stop having cervical cancer screening. Women with a history of cervical cancer, DES exposure before birth, HIV infection or a weakened immune system should continue to have screening as long as they are in good health.
Women who have had a total hysterectomy (removal of the uterus and cervix) may also stop having cervical cancer screening, unless they have a history of cervical cancer or precancer. Women who have had a hysterectomy without removal of the cervix should continue to follow the guidelines above.
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