Cervical cancer does not just happen suddenly; it gradually develops over time. In many women with cervical cancer, the sexually transmitted infection brought about by the human papillomavirus has been linked to cancer.
The cervix is the lower end of the womb that meets the upper part of the vagina. Cancer is associated with the abnormal growth of potentially dangerous cells capable of spreading to other parts of the body. The growth of these hazardous cells gives rise to tumors. When these tumors are present in the cervix, they are likely to cause cervical cancer.
These tumors metastasize; that is, they can progress to other parts of the body from the cervix. Other parts of the body that could be affected by cervical cancer are the liver, the lungs, bladder, and vagina.
Certain strains of the human papillomavirus could be present in the cervix and can change the normal constitution of the cells lining the cervix. This change is known as cervical dysplasia. The changes undergone by the cells in the cervix makes room for abnormal cells to thrive. In 2005, an estimated 251,524 women were living with cervical cancer in the United States alone (National Cancer Institute, 2018).
What causes Cervical Cancer?
Chief among the causes of cervical cancer is the human papillomavirus (HPV). A woman infected with HPV is most likely to develop cervical cancer due to the action of certain strains of the virus on the cells of the cervix. HPV infection can be contracted and spread through sexual intercourse involving direct skin to skin contact. All kinds of sex with an infected person can expose one to HPV.
Symptoms of Cervical Cancer
Typically, cervical cancer does not produce symptoms at its early stages until the cancer cells start to invade the surrounding tissues. Some of the symptoms are:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding
- Abnormal discharge from the vagina
- Pelvic pain
- Painful urination
- Urge to urinate frequently
Who is at risk?
- Persons who were initiated into having sex, for girls, before they started seeing their menstrual periods
- Women who have multiple sexual partners
- Women who take oral contraceptives
- Women diagnosed with HPV
- Women who smoke cigarettes
- Women who do not use condoms, or who use condoms inconsistently
How do you know it is cervical cancer?
Early diagnosis of cervical cancer makes it easy to treat.
The most popular way to find out if a woman has cervical cancer is by using the Pap test and HPV high-risk test. In a Pap test, cells from the surface of the cervix are collected to be examined for abnormalities.
An HPV test could demand the aspiration of a tissue sample of the cervix which will be analyzed under a microscope. This testing is done when the cells for a Pap smear are abnormal.
To identify changes in the cervix, a doctor can use the following tools:
- The loop electrosurgical excision procedure technique (LEEP). This tool takes a sample of the cervical tissue with the help of an electrified loop of wire.
- Colposcopy. Here, a colposcope is used to check the cervix for abnormalities. It is done when the Pap smear result is showing abnormal cells but there are no physical symptoms of cervical cancer present. In a colposcopy, the cervix is stained with a substance to make the doctor see the abnormal cells in the cervix clearly. The doctor then takes a biopsy of the cells for analysis.
- Conization. This involves the removal of a small, cone-shaped portion of the cervix for clinical examination. It can be done with a scalpel, a LEEP, or a laser under general anesthesia.
Treatment for Cervical Cancer
Treatment for cervical cancer depends on the stage of the cancer, the location of the cancer in the cervix, the type of cancer, the woman’s age, and her general health state.
To treat cervical cancer in its earliest form, the following treatment options can be employed:
- Laser surgery
- Simple hysterectomy
- Chemo radiation
Simple hysterectomy is done when the cancer defies other treatments.
To treat a woman who wants to have babies after treatment, a cone biopsy via conization is carried out on her. Other times, a trachelectomy, which is the removal of the cervix and the upper vagina, is carried out.
How can one stay protected from cervical cancer?
- Screening/testing regularly for the detection of precancerous cells before they progress to dangerous levels. This is done by going for a Pap test and a high-risk HPV test.
- HPV vaccination protects against HPV. This is done before a girl or a woman becomes initiated into having sex. It does not cure the virus once it infects a person.
- Avoid HPV infection by practicing safe sex
In the end, it all boils down to early testing, hence the need to have home test kits for STDs – especially if you are in a relationship and sexually active.