Understanding Cervical Cancer

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What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is rare type of cancer that occurs in the cells of the cervix, the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. Cervical cancer affects fewer than 200,000 women each year, but it is associated with a very common sexually transmitted disease, known as the human papilloma virus (HPV).

Symptoms of cervical cancer

People who have early stage cervical cancer typically do not exhibit any symptoms. When the cancer becomes more advanced, some symptoms include:

  • Vaginal bleeding after intercourse, between periods, or after menopause
  • Watery, bloody vaginal discharge that may be heavy and have a foul odor
  • Pelvic pain or pain during intercourse

Causes of cervical cancer

Cervical cancer begins when healthy cells undergo a genetic change that causes them to turn into abnormal cells. Though an exact cause of cervical cancer has yet to be determined, HPV definitely plays a role. When a woman is exposed to HPV, her immune system can usually fight off the virus on its own and prevent any harm. Some women, however, are unable to fight off the virus, which survives for years, contributing to the process that causes some cells on the surface of the cervix to become cancer cells.

Screening for cervical cancer

Early detection is key to successful treatment of all cancers, including cancer of the cervix. It’s recommended that women begin screening for cervical cancer at 21 years of age. Screening tests include:

  • Pap test – The cervix is swabbed for cell samples to be examined and tested for abnormalities.
  • HPV DNA test – The cells collected from the cervix are tested specifically for the strains of HPV that are more likely to lead to cervical cancer. Not all HPV strains lead to cancer. This test is recommended when a Pap test comes back abnormal.

Treatment and prevention of cervical cancer

The treatment of cervical cancer depends on several factors, like the stage of the cancer, your overall health, and your preferences. Surgery, radiation, and/or chemotherapy treatments may be used. You can reduce your risk for developing cervical cancer by having regular screening tests and getting the HPV vaccine.

For more information about cervical cancer, or to speak with a physician about an HPV vaccine, call Pomona Valley Health Centers at (888) 686-0773.