Cancer of the cervix is a very common female cancer in which cancer cells are found in the tissues of the cervix. The cervix is the opening of the uterus and connects the uterus to the vagina. Before cancer cells are found on the cervix, the tissues of the cervix go through changes in which abnormal cells begin to appear (dysplasia). These changes may lead to cancer of the cervix which usually grows slowly over a period of time.
There are usually no symptoms associated with cancer of the cervix and more than 11,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer in the United States every year. The true key to preventing cervical cancer is screening, therefore it is very important that you visit your doctor regularly for tests that will detect this form of cancer. The first of these tests is a Pap smear, which is done during your routine annual gynecologic examination.
Many women have abnormal Pap smear results which generally mean that atypical cells have been found. Depending on the results, your provider may order repeat Pap tests at regular intervals or perform a colposcopy.
The main cause of cervical cancer is a virus called human papillomavirus (HPV) which may be passed from person to person during sexual activity. There are many types of HPV; a few of them are called "high risk HPV types" which are capable of causing cervical cancer. Cervical cancer screening may include a Pap alone, or a Pap test and and an HPV test, depending upon age and risk factors.
Pap smears with HPV testing are an important part of all women’s health care. Testing for HPV in women 30 years and older can help predict whether abnormal cells will be diagnosed in the next few years, even when Pap test results are normal. These changes in the cells of the cervix may lead to cancer. Routine screening tests help decrease the chance that abnormal cells are missed.
If the results of both the HPV test and Pap test are normal, the chance that you will develop mild or moderate dysplasia in the next 3–5 years is very low. You do not need to have these tests again for another 3 years.
HPV testing is not recommended for women younger than 30 years because the immune system in young women tends to clear the virus quickly, so most often the infection will go away by itself. A positive HPV test result in a young woman (indicating that she does have one of the cancer-causing HPV types) will most likely become negative without treatment. For women over 30, HPV tends to persist and cause changes in cervical cells which may lead to cancer.
It is important that you make and keep all follow up visits for abnormal Pap tests. Delays in treatment can result in abnormal cells developing into cervical cancer.
Treatment for cervical cancer
Treatments for cancer of the cervix depend on the stage of disease, the size of the tumor, age, overall physical condition, and a woman’s desire to have children. There are three kinds of treatment for women with cervical cancer: surgery (removing the cancer in an operation); radiation therapy (using high-dose x-rays or other high-energy rays to kill cancer cells); and chemotherapy (using drugs to kill cancer cells). Your provider will work you and may consult with an oncologist who specializes in gynecologic cancers and with a team of cancer providers to provide you with the best treatment plan.