Cervical cancer occurs when abnormal (cancerous) cells of the cervix grow out of control. It is the second most common type of cancer for women worldwide, but because it develops over time, it is also one of the most preventable types of cancer. Cervical cancer is often successfully treatable if diagnosed early.
Most cervical cancer is caused by a virus called human papillomavirus, or HPV. There are many types of the HPV virus. Not all types of HPV cause cervical cancer. Some of them cause genital warts, but other types may not cause any symptoms. HPV is transmitted through sexual contact.
Most adults have been infected with HPV at some time. An infection may go away on its own. But sometimes it can cause genital warts or lead to cervical cancer. That’s why it is important for women to have regular Pap tests. A Pap test can find changes in cervical cells before they turn into cancer. If these cell changes are treated, it may prevent cervical cancer.
Changes resulting in abnormal cervical cells rarely cause symptoms. But you may have symptoms if these cell changes grow into cervical cancer. Symptoms include:
- Vaginal bleeding that is not normal, such as bleeding between menstrual periods, after sex, or after menopause
- Pain in the lower belly or pelvis
- Pain during sex
- Heavy or unusual vaginal discharge that may be watery, thick, and possibly have a foul odor
Abnormal cervical cells show up during the analysis of a Pap test. During a Pap test, your doctor scrapes a small sample of cells from the surface of the cervix to look for cell changes.
It is extremely important for women to have regular gynecological exams including a Pap test. Regular Pap tests almost always show the cell changes before they turn into cancer. If caught early, cervical cancer is treatable. Treatment options depend on the stage at which the cancer is diagnosed and may include:
- Surgery, such as a hysterectomy and removal of pelvic lymph nodes with or without removal of both ovaries and fallopian tubes.
- Radiation therapy.
If you are age 26 or younger, you can get the HPV vaccine, which protects against the two types of HPV that cause most cases of cervical cancer. HPV 16 and 18 together account for 70% of all cervical cancers, as well as many cancers of the vagina and vulva. Vaccines like Gardasil and Cervarix have been shown to provide protection against these viruses for five years.
Since these vaccines do not protect against all types of cervical cancers, getting regular Pap tests is an important part of prevention.