Although cervical cancer is preventable in many Western countries given the availability of screening tests and a vaccine that protects against infection from human papillomavirus (HPV), about 12,000 women in the U.S. still get the disease per year.
When the cancer is detected early, it is still highly treatable and is linked with long survival. Thus, it is essential for women to have a better understanding of this condition particularly those with increased risks such as women who are above 30 years old, those who smoke, those who use birth control pills for at least five years, those with several sexual partners and those who have at least three children.
Cervical cancer may not cause signs and symptoms in its early stage but advanced cervical cancer may cause abnormal vaginal discharge or bleeding such as after sex, in between menstrual periods or after menopause. The condition may also be characterized by pain during sexual contact and pain in the pelvis or lower belly.
Although it may take several years before normal cells found in the cervix can turn into cancer cells, doctors can find the abnormal cells through a Pap test, which is currently the most effective and most reliable of cancer screening tests.
Women who are 26 years or younger can get the HPV vaccine to reduce their risks for the cancer. The vaccine provides protection against two types of HPV that causes cervical cancer.
Women who are at least 21 years old should get regular Pap tests but those who are 30 years old and older are advised to have an HPV test and a Pap test. Women who get normal results from these tests have low chances of getting cervical cancer in the next few years. Those who get abnormal results may need a biopsy and other tests.
Women who are found positive for cervical cancer are often referred to a gynecological oncologist, who specialized in treating these types of cancer.
Treatment for the condition may include chemotherapy, which uses special medicines to shrink or kill the cancerous cells; radiation therapy, which uses high energy rays to kill cancer; surgery, which involves doctors removing the cancer tissue in an operation; or a combination.
The choice would depend on the size of the tumor, whether or not the cancer has already spread and if the patient still has plans to get pregnant someday.