This year, more than 13,000 new cases of cervical cancer are expected to be diagnosed.1 According to the American Cancer Society, cervical cancer was once one of the most common types of cancer that a woman could have. Fortunately, in recent years, regularly scheduled Pap tests have caught pre-cancerous cells early on and have saved an untold number of women.
Cervical cancer is what happens when cells in the cervix (the lowest portion of the uterus, which connects it to the vagina) grow abnormally and become cancerous. They then invade the surrounding tissue and other organs in a process called metastasis.2 Luckily, cervical cancer tends to grow slower than other types of cancers — which is why the rise of Pap tests have helped doctors catch it early — when it’s more likely to respond to treatment. Most women who have pre-cancerous cells detected by doctors are in their 20s and 30s and the average age of a cervical cancer patient is between 35 and 44. Typically, women who have been getting cervical cancer screenings throughout their life do not develop this disease after they reach the age of 65. This is a remarkable discovery and a true testament to the power of preventative medicine.
Early Warning Signs of Cervical Cancer
As a woman, the best way to stay on top of your uterine and cervical health is to get a Pap test on a regular basis. If you’re between the ages of 21 and 65, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services recommends getting a Pap test every three years.3 After the age of 65, if you’ve had three normal Pap tests in a row, doctors generally agree that you can stop getting tested. Although getting regular Pap tests is the most important thing that you can do to monitor yourself for cervical cancer, it is important to be aware of the common early warning signs.
Abnormal vaginal bleeding is often the first sign that many women have that there’s something wrong. It’s often hard to tell the difference between bleeding that’s related to cervical cancer and a normal, healthy period. If you experience spotting between periods, a longer menstrual cycle, or an extremely heavy cycle, it may be a sign of cervical cancer.
Abnormal vaginal discharge is another warning sign of cervical cancer. Normal vaginal discharge is generally consistent month to month. This abnormal discharge may have an unusual smell or appear brown, watery, or red with blood. If you have unusual pain during intercourse or pain in your lower back, pelvis, or appendix, it could mean that cervical cancer is present and is progressing into a more advanced stage.4
How is Cervical Cancer Diagnosed
Sometimes it takes less than one year for pre-cancerous cells to develop into cervical cancer, but most of the time, the pre-cancerous stage takes several years to develop into cancer.5 Fortunately, there are times where the pre-cancerous cells never develop into cancer at all.
If your doctor suspects that you may have cervical cancer, they will do a Pap test to find cancerous cells. If they believe that there are abnormal or cancerous cells present, they will likely suggest a biopsy, where a small amount of tissue is extracted for examination. Only a biopsy can confirm a diagnosis. Fortunately, a biopsy for cervical cancer is a low-impact procedure that can be done in a doctor’s office under local anesthesia.6
After the diagnosis is confirmed, your doctor will order a pelvic exam, MRI, or X-ray to see whether the cancer has spread to any of the surrounding tissue or organs. This period of the process is generally referred to as staging. At the end of this period, your doctor will be able to assign your cancer a stage, which ranges from Stage 1A to Stage 4B. The staging process is essential to help your doctor figure out how far the cancer has spread.7
How is Cervical Cancer Treated
Once your doctor has determined the stage of your cervical cancer, they will be able to build an effective treatment plan to help minimize damage and improve quality of life. Your health care team, which includes your family doctor and oncologist, will develop this plan together.
Treatment options for cervical cancer depend entirely on its size and how far it has spread. Suspicious pre-cancerous lesions are often removed in a quick in-office biopsy or minimally invasive laser surgery. Some people who have pre-cancerous cells choose to have a hysterectomy to completely eliminate any chance of the cancer spreading. This is a huge decision, but many women choose to take it because it provides peace of mind.
If your cancer has progressed and is considered invasive, surgery to remove the cancerous tissue is also an option. If the cancer has spread to the extent that surgery isn’t a viable option, radiation, chemotherapy, and biological therapy are used to shrink and kill the cancerous cells. There are a lot of different types of these therapies, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. Regardless of which treatment option you pursue, it’s essential to maintain a healthy diet with enough protein and calories to keep up your strength. Quitting smoking and abstaining from alcohol are also key to ensuring a positive reaction to treatment and medications.8
What Should You Do?
If you’re worried about developing cervical cancer, the best thing you can do is be aware of the most common risk factors, which include smoking, and exposure to sexually transmitted diseases like herpes and HPV.9
If you’re exhibiting any of the early warning signs of cervical cancer or are nervous because of an uncertain result on your latest Pap test, don’t panic. A quick biopsy or in-office examination will be able to give you the answers that you need. If you do have cervical cancer, there are a lot of different resources that your doctor can use to help you heal, and their first priority will be getting you the best treatment possible.