In 2021, more than 14,000 women will get diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer, many of them likely young. That’s because cervical cancer tends to affect women in their 30s and 40s, though the risk still exists in older women. This disease can be deadly, but there are steps you can take to protect yourself against it.
There are also screenings that can catch cancerous cells at an early stage, making it easier to treat. In fact, thanks to Pap tests, the cervical cancer death rate has dropped significantly.
Here’s what you need to know about cervical cancer.
This post is for informational purposes only. Always talk to a doctor about any medical concerns you have.
Cervical Cancer Facts & Figures
Cervical cancer happens when cells in the female reproductive tract begin growing out of control. This type of cancer begins in the cervix, which is the area where the lower uterus and the vaginal canal meet. The abnormal cells develop into cervical tumors. But they can also spread to other areas of the body.
Most cases of cervical cancer are related to human papillomavirus (HPV).
These viruses are sexually transmitted infections that may have been acquired years earlier. Not all cases of HPV lead to cancer, though. Scientists are still investigating the relationship between viral infection and the immune system.
According to the American Cancer Society, over 4,000 women will die of cervical cancer in 2021. But as we said at the start, the death rate for cervical cancer has gone down over the years. Overall, the average 5-year survival rate is 92% for localized cases and 65% across all stages of the disease.
With 9.1 cases per 100,000 women, the incidence rate of cervical cancer is highest among Hispanic women. Black women experience the next-highest rate: 8.7 cases per 100,000 women. At 6 cases per 100,000 women, females of Asian and Pacific Islander descent have the lowest rate.
Although many women receive their cervical cancer diagnoses when they’re 35 to 44 years old, getting older does not eliminate the risk. Because this disease can go undetected for years, some women are over 65 years old before they get a diagnosis.
Early Cervical Cancer Symptoms and Screening
You may have no idea that cervical cancer is growing inside your body. Early on, this disease rarely causes symptoms.
Fortunately, screening exams can clue you and your doctor in on a developing problem.
Pap smears are the primary screening tool for detecting abnormal cervical cells. The federal government’s Office on Women’s Health recommends that most women get a Pap test every three to five years, beginning at age 21.
Depending on medical history, some women need this screening exam performed at shorter intervals. You might need one annually, for example, if you have a history of cancer in your family.
HPV tests are another method of screening for cervical cancer. This exam detects whether you have HPV DNA in your cervix. You may have an HPV test performed at the same time as a Pap smear or separately.
If either screening shows abnormal results, your medical provider will likely recommend additional tests.
The first of these is a colposcopy. Your doctor will use a special magnifying instrument to look for abnormal cells on or around the cervix.
Suspicious lesions will be removed during the procedure, and the doctor will have them biopsied. The results of the biopsy will show whether the cells are benign, precancerous or cancerous. In some cases, a scraping procedure known as endocervical curettage may also be required.
Advanced Symptoms of Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer can grow silently for many years, but it will eventually cause noticeable symptoms.
Bleeding is one of the first problems that many women develop. It could be a bit of vaginal bleeding between periods or, in postmenopausal women, after your periods have stopped entirely. You might also experience bleeding after sexual intercourse.
You may also see an unusual amount of vaginal discharge. It often has a strong, unpleasant odor. It may seem thin and watery, or it might even contain traces of blood.
Advanced cervical cancer can cause pain as well.
At first, you may notice pain during or after sex. Eventually, the pain may bother you more as it escalates. It could affect your back and your legs in addition to your pelvis. One or both of your legs may also swell.
You may have an overall sense of being unwell, too. Cancer could take away your appetite or leave you fatigued. You might drop some pounds without trying to lose weight.
If you notice any of these symptoms, make an appointment with your primary care provider or gynecologist. You may receive a referral to a gynecologic oncologist depending on your symptoms.
Don’t panic if you notice any of these symptoms, but do talk to a doctor.
Treatment for Cervical Cancer
Treatment for pre-cancerous cells usually involves destroying or removing only the affected tissue.
Destroying these cells is called ablation. It can be performed with a laser or a freezing method known as cryosurgery.
A procedure called a cone biopsy is used for cutting pre-cancerous tissue out of the body. In select cases, cone biopsies can also be used for cancerous lesions that are caught at a very early stage.
In many cases, more tissue will need to be removed. The full extent will depend on how advanced the cancer is.
For cancer that is still quite early in its progression, the doctor might recommend a trachelectomy. This procedure focuses on the cervix and removes only a small amount of additional tissue. A benefit of a trachelectomy is that many women are still able to become pregnant afterward.
More frequently, a hysterectomy is performed. In a simple hysterectomy, the surgeon removes the entire uterus as well as the cervix. But a radical hysterectomy might be needed when the patient needs to have some lymph nodes and a portion of the vagina removed as well.
In addition to surgery, patients may need chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Some women also receive targeted drug therapy, and immunotherapy medications may be given in advanced cases.
Preventing Cervical Cancer Before It Starts
Considering that cervical cancer can stealthily invade your body for years before you notice, concern about this disease is justifiable. Regular Pap tests and HPV screenings can increase your chances of catching this disease at an early stage.
Even better, there may be additional steps that you can take right now to reduce your or your daughter’s chance of ever developing this type of cancer.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends vaccinating against HPV early to prevent the kinds of infections that can lead to cervical and other types of cancer. If you have a child, talk to her pediatrician about the HPV vaccine.
This goes for boys, too. HPV causes other infections and the virus is sexually transmitted.
If you missed getting this vaccine in childhood, it may not be too late.
The CDC recommends vaccination through age 26, but the vaccine has been approved for use up to age 45.
Still, it’s best to get your HPV vaccine before you become sexually active since it may not be effective after you’ve already been infected with the HPV strains that cause cervical cancer.
It’s also a good idea to be aware of the risk factors associated with cervical cancer:
- Health conditions that reduce how well your immune system works
- History of smoking
- Infection with other sexually transmitted diseases
- Sexual activity at an early age or with numerous partners
If you fall into a high-risk group, you may need to undergo screenings more frequently than other women.
One of the best things you can do to protect yourself against cervical cancer is to get regular screenings. With your doctor’s help, you can stick to a screening schedule, discuss the benefits of vaccination and make any necessary lifestyle adjustments to reduce your risk and catch the disease early.