The American Cancer Society estimates there will be 13,240 new diagnosed cervical cancer cases in the U.S. for 2018. To help increase your chances of preventing it, detecting it early and treating it quickly for a better prognosis if you are diagnosed with it, be sure to get as much cervical cancer info as you can. Take a minute to use this guide to educate yourself on cervical cancer to stay one step ahead.
What Is Cervical Cancer?
Cervical cancer is cancer beginning in your cervix cells. Your cervix connects to your vagina and is the lower part of your uterus. Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a sexually transmitted disease, and certain strains are linked to the development of cervical cancer.
A woman’s immune system usually prevents HPV from causing harm. However, in some women, HPV can survive for years and can contribute to cervical cancer or genital warts. This is why it’s imperative you get regular Pap tests done. Pap testing allows the doctor to identify any changes in the cells of your cervix before they turn into cancer.
The HPV virus has many types, but not all of them cause cervical cancer. Several of them cause genital warts, while others don’t cause any symptoms.
Quickly treating these cells could help prevent cervical cancer. According to The American Cancer Society, around 4,170 women will die from this disease in 2018. However, the good news is regular screening tests and getting vaccinated against the HPV virus reduces your risk of getting cervical cancer. In fact, the cervical cancer rates of death decreased significantly with the increased use of the Pap test.
Types of Cervical Cancer
Several types of cervical cancer exist, and it’s helpful to know which one you have to determine your treatment and prognosis. The two primary types of cervical cancer are:
- Adenocarcinoma: Adenocarcinoma starts in your column-shaped glandular cells lining your cervical canal.
- Squamous Cell Carcinoma: This type begins in your squamous cells (flat, thin cells) lining the outer area of your cervix projecting into your vagina. Squamous cell carcinomas are the most common types of cervical cancers.
You can have both of these cell types contributing to cervical cancer. While rare, cancer may also occur in other cervix cells.
Who Can Get Cervical Cancer?
All women have a risk of developing cervical cancer. Around 12,000 women in the U.S. each year develop cervical cancer, reports the Office of Women’s Health. While it commonly occurs in women who are 30 years old or older, women of all ages are at risk.
Other than HPV, other risk factors for cervical cancer include:
- Having several sexual partners.
- Using birth control pills for five years or longer.
- Having previously given birth to three or more kids.
- Having HIV or another health condition making fighting off health problems difficult for your body.
Cervical Cancer Symptoms
Early cervix cancer and precancerous cervical cells changes typically don’t cause any symptoms. Therefore, regular Pap screenings and HPV testing can help your doctor identify changes to precancerous cells early and prevent cervical cancer from developing.
If your cervical cancer is in an advanced stage, you may experience possible symptoms like pain during sex, irregular or abnormal vaginal bleeding or vaginal discharge. Contact your doctor if you experience:
- Bleeding after sexual intercourse
- Increased frequency of urination
- Bleeding between normal menstrual periods
- Pelvic pain unrelated to your menstrual period
- Bleeding after menopause
- Pain during urination
- Bleeding after douching
- Unusual or heavy vaginal discharge that’s thick, watery and has a foul odor
- Bleeding after a pelvic exam
These symptoms may also be an indication of other health problems unrelated to cervical cancer. To avoid these symptoms, you should be learning about or asking your doctor how to prevent cervical cancer.
How to Prevent Cervical Cancer and Risks
If you receive a normal result for your Pap test, you have a low chance of developing cervical cancer in the next year, but you still need to get regular Pap tests according to recommended guidelines. If you’re 30 or over, you may wish to request an HPV test in addition to your Pap test. If both these tests come back with normal results, your doctor may recommend you wait for five years before your next Pap test.
Women between 21 to 65 years old need to get regular Pap tests as their gynecologist directs even if they’re not having sex anymore or think they’re too old to have children. If you’re older than 65 years old with several years of normal Pap test results, or if you’ve had your cervix taken out during a total hysterectomy procedure, your physician might inform you that you don’t require Pap testing anymore.
You might be able to lower your cervical cancer risk also with the following cervical cancer preventions:
- Stopping smoking.
- Limiting how many sexual partners you have.
- Using condoms when having sex
Both men and women can get the HPV virus in their genital areas, even if protected or covered with a latex condom. While doctors aren’t sure of how effective condoms are in preventing the HPV virus, there’s a link between using condoms and a lower cervical cancer rate.
You should also consider:
- Setting up regular appointments with your gynecologist for Pap testing to check for cervical precancers.
- Getting vaccinated to protect you against all HPV types commonly involved in vaginal, vulvar and cervical cancers.
- Following up with the gynecologist if you receive abnormal Pap test results.
Doctors recommend the HPV vaccine for girls and boys who are 11 or 12 years old. However, kids and young adults between the ages nine and 26 may also get it. Depending on age, the doctor administers the vaccine in a series of two or three shots. Even if you receive the HPV vaccination, you still need regular Pap testing done to check for cervical cancer.
Routine Health Checks for Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer screening throughout cancer prevention history is among the greatest success stories. Widespread screening lowered the incidence and mortality rate of the cancer by 50 percent over three decades. Most attribute this to the effectiveness of Pap test screening. The American Cancer Society estimates over 4,000 lives are saved per year due to screening.
Cervical cancer, if found early, is a successfully treatable cancer.
Your health history, risk factors and age determines how often you need screening. Consult with your physician about your particular case. The guidelines, according to the American Cancer Society, for cervical cancer screening for most women are to have a Pap test conducted:
- Every three years if you’re between the ages of 21 and 29.
- Every five years along with an HPV test if you’re between 30 and 64 or every three years for a Pap test alone.
Women over the age of 65 can halt getting Pap test with their doctor’s consent.
If you or your doctor suspect you have cervical cancer, you’ll receive a thorough cervix examination. The doctor uses a colposcope — a magnifying instrument — to check for irregular or abnormal cells. They’ll also probably take a biopsy sample of cervical cells to test in the lab. Your doctor might use the following to obtain tissue:
- Endocervical curettage: To scrape your cervix for a tissue sample, your physician uses a thin brush or a curette — spoon-shaped, small instrument.
- Cervical punch biopsy: The doctor pinches off small cervical tissue samples using a sharp instrument.
If either of these cause you concern, your doctor may take a different approach and perform the following:
- Cone biopsy: This procedure where the physician obtains deeper cervical cell layers to test in the lab. You’ll have this procedure performed in a hospital where you will be either under general anesthesia or an epidural or spinal anesthesia — which numbs you from the waist down.
- Electrical wire loop: The doctor uses a low-voltage, thin electrical wire for gathering a small sample of tissue.
What to Do Once You Receive a Cervical Cancer Diagnosis
If your physician identifies cervical cancer, you’ll require further testing for the doctor to determine the stage of your cancer. The stage of your cancer determines what treatment is best for you.
Staging exams include:
- Visual examination of your rectum and bladder using special scopes.
- Imaging tests like CT scans, MRIs, X-rays and positron emission tomography (PET) so your physician can see whether or not the cancer has spread past your cervix.
Cervical cancer stages are:
- Stage 1: Your cancer is limited to your cervix.
- Stage 2: Your cancer is in your cervix as well as the upper part of your vagina.
- Stage 3: Your cancer moved to your pelvic side wall or lower part of your vagina
- Stage 4: Your cancer has spread to other organs like your rectum or bladder, lungs, bones or liver.
How to Treat Cervical Cancer
Treating cervical cancer depends on specific factors, such as your cancer stage, preferences and other health conditions, if any. The doctor may recommend chemotherapy, radiation, surgery or a combination of these three.
With chemotherapy, a member of your healthcare team infuses chemotherapy medications into your vein to destroy cancerous cells. Chemotherapy at low doses may be and often are combined with radiation because chemo enhances the radiation effects. Chemotherapy at higher doses helps control more advanced stages of the cancer.
Radiation treatment uses protons, X-rays or other high-powered beams of energy to kill cancer cells. The doctor may use radiation therapy by itself or combine it with chemo to shrink a tumor before surgery or kill the remaining cancerous cells after surgery.
Your doctor may give you radiation therapy:
- Internally (brachytherapy) where they place a radioactive material-filled device into your vagina for several minutes
- Externally (external beam radiation treatment) where they direct the radiation beam at your body to the affected area
- Both internally and externally
If you’re premenopausal, radiation therapy may cause your period to stop and begin menopause. Have your physician preserve your eggs before you receive radiation therapy if you plan on getting pregnant after treatment.
If your cervical cancer is in its early stage, the doctor will likely recommend a hysterectomy, which is a surgical procedure to remove your uterus. This procedure may cure your cancer and prevent it from coming back. You won’t be able to get pregnant after the surgeon removes your uterus, so you may wish to consider this carefully before you agree to the surgery.
Your doctor may suggest:
- Simple hysterectomy: Your surgeon removes your uterus and cervix along with your cancer. Simple hysterectomies are typically the option if your cancer is in its early stage.
- Radical hysterectomy: Your surgeon removes your uterus, cervix, nearby lymph nodes and part of your vagina along with the cancer.
Another cervical cancer treatment if in the early stage is minimally invasive surgery. Your doctor can perform surgery without lymph node involvement in early-stage cervical cancer to allow you the ability to become pregnant after the surgery.
Once you finish your treatment, you’ll need to have regular follow-up checkups with your doctor.
Supportive (Palliative) Care
Palliative care provides you with specialized medical care where the healthcare team focuses on providing you with relief from your symptoms like pain, for example. For ongoing care, the healthcare professionals work closely with you, your family and any other doctors involved to give you an extra support system.
Palliative care offers you the care and support of nurses, doctors and other specially trained healthcare professionals who all have a goal of improving your quality of life as well as your family’s. When you receive palliative care along with other treatments, it helps increase your comfort and could even extend your life.
Some women think they don’t require screening for cervical cancer once they’ve stopped having kids, but this isn’t a good idea. You should follow the guidelines of the American Cancer Society for early cervical cancer detection.
Coping With Your Diagnosis and Support
Any cancer diagnosis is difficult, and nobody can prepare for it entirely. Manage the fear and shock you might be feeling by taking control of the things you can in your situation.
Everybody copes with their diagnosis of cervical cancer in their own way — you will, too. As time moves forward, you’ll find ways to help you to cope better.
While providing you with cervical cancer medical care from diagnosis to treatment, your team at Gettysburg Cancer Center supports you psychologically, emotionally — and even spiritually if you’d like. Until then, take a few steps to begin taking control right now by:
- Learning about cervical cancer. This will help you become part of the decision-making process of your care. Ask your doctor questions and take notes during your appointments. Ask your doctor for other resources for information.
- Talk to people you’re comfortable with. Your family and friends are a great support system where you can discuss your feelings. Support groups are helpful as well.
- Allow people to help you. Cancer treatments can exhaust you. The more hands you have to accomplish what you need to, the better.
- Set reasonable goals for yourself. Doing so can give you a sense of purpose and help you feel in control.
- Give yourself some “me” time. Relaxing, eating well and getting enough sleep can help with the fatigue and stress of cervical cancer.
We hope that you found this cervical cancer information sheet helpful. Here at Gettysburg Cancer Center, we are dedicated to providing you with compassionate and complete patient care from diagnosis through treatment. If you suspect you have cervical cancer, are at risk for it or would like to book an appointment, please complete our contact form, and we’ll reach out to you right away.