Cervical Cancer Awareness Month
What is cervical cancer?
Cancer is a disease in which cells in the body grow out of control. Cancer is always named for the part of the body where it starts, even if it spreads to other body parts later. When cancer starts in the cervix, it is called cervical cancer. The cervix is the lower, narrow end of the uterus. It connects the vagina (the birth canal) to the upper part of the uterus. The uterus (or womb) is where a baby grows when a woman is pregnant.
Cervical Cancer is the easiest gynecologic cancer to prevent with regular screening tests and follow-up. When found early, it is highly treatable and associated with long survival and good quality of life.
Who gets cervical cancer?
All women are at risk of cervical cancer. It occurs most often in women over age 30. The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the main cause of cervical cancer. HPV is a common virus that is passed from one person to another during sexual intercourse. At least half of all sexually active people will have HPV at some point in their lives, but few women will get cervical cancer.
What are the symptoms?
Early on, cervical cancer may not cause signs and symptoms. Advanced cervical cancer may cause bleeding or discharge from the vagina that is not normal for you, such as bleeding after sexual intercourse. If you have any of these signs, see your doctor. They may be caused by something other than cancer, but the only way to know is to see your doctor.
What raises a woman’s chance of getting cervical cancer?
Almost all cervical cancers are caused by HPV. You are more likely to get HPV if you started having sex at an early age, or if you or your partner have had sex with several others. However, any woman who has ever had sex is at risk for HPV.
There are many types of HPV. Usually HPV will go away on its own, but if it does not, it may cause cervical cancer over time.
In addition to having HPV, these things also can increase your risk of cervical cancer:
• Having HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) or another condition
that makes it hard for your body to fight off health problems.
• Using birth control pills for a long time (five or more years).
• Having given birth to three or more children.
How can I prevent cervical cancer?
• Get the HPV vaccine. It protects against the types of HPV that most often cause cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers. It is given in a series of three shots. The vaccine is recommended for 11 and 12 year old girls. It is also recommended for girls and women aged 13 through 26 who did not get any or all of the shots when they were younger. (Note: The vaccine can be given to girls beginning at age 9.)
• See your doctor regularly for a Pap’s smear test (or Pap test) that can find cervical pre-cancers. The Pap test is one of the most reliable and effective cancer screening tests available. You should start getting regular pap tests at age 21. If your Pap test results are normal, your doctor may say that you will not need another Pap test for three years.
• Follow up with your doctor, if your Pap test results are not normal.
• Don’t smoke.
• Use condoms during sex.
• Limit your number of sexual partners.
What should I do if my doctor says I have cervical cancer?
If your doctor says that you have cervical cancer, ask to be referred to a gynecologic oncologist—a doctor who has been trained to treat cancers like this. This doctor will work with you to create a treatment plan.