Cervical Cancer: What You Need to Know
Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that occurs in the cervix, the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. It is usually caused by a virus called human papillomavirus (HPV) and can often be prevented through vaccination and regular cervical cancer screenings.
What are the risks factors for cervical cancer?
However, there are several risk factors for cervical cancer beyond In addition to HPV infection, there are several other risk factors for cervical cancer. These include:
- A weakened immune system, such as from HIV or taking immunosuppressive drugs
- Smoking, which can damage cervical cells and decrease the effectiveness of treatment
- Long-term use of birth control pills, which can slightly increase the risk
- Having multiple full-term pregnancies
- Exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES), a synthetic form of estrogen that was given to some women to prevent miscarriage in the past
- Having a family history of cervical cancer
- Being overweight or obese
It’s important to note that having one or more of these risk factors does not necessarily mean that a person will develop cervical cancer but having multiple risk factors may increase the likelihood.
What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?
In the early stages of cervical cancer, there may be no symptoms at all. This is why regular cervical cancer screenings are important for detecting the disease early. As the cancer progresses, symptoms may include:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding: This may include bleeding between periods, after intercourse, or after menopause.
- Vaginal discharge: This may be watery, pink, or bloody and may have a foul odor.
- Pelvic pain: This may be a dull ache or a sharp pain.
- Pain during intercourse: This may be caused by the cancer growing into surrounding tissues.
- Back pain: This may be caused by the cancer spreading to the lymph nodes in the pelvis or lower back.
These symptoms can also be caused by other conditions, such as infections or benign growths, so it’s important to see your health care provider if you experience any of these symptoms.
Also, cervical cancer often doesn’t cause any symptoms until it has reached an advanced stage, which is why regular cervical cancer screenings are so important. They can help detect the disease early, when it is most treatable.
Who should be screened for cervical cancer?
It is recommended that women of certain ages undergo cervical cancer screenings. The frequency and type of screening may vary depending on factors such as age, health history and overall risk. It is recommended that women start cervical cancer screening at age 21. Women between the ages of 21 and 29 should have a Pap test every 3 years. Women between the ages of 30 and 65 should have a Pap test plus an HPV test every 5 years or a Pap test alone every 3 years. Women over the age of 65 should discuss their individual risk with their health care provider, as they may be able to stop screening if they have had normal test results in the past. It is important to note that these are general guidelines and you should speak with your health care provider about your individual needs and risk factors.
It’s also worth noting that not all insurance covers the cost of cervical cancer screening, so it’s a good idea to check with your insurance provider about your coverage before scheduling a screening.
How important is the HPV vaccine in preventing cervical cancer?
The HPV vaccine works by preventing infection from certain types of HPV, which are the main cause of cervical cancer. The HPV vaccine is made up of viral-like particles that mimic the structure of the HPV virus, but do not contain any live virus. When the vaccine is given, it triggers the body’s immune system to produce a response, including the production of antibodies. These antibodies will recognize and neutralize the HPV virus if the person is exposed to it in the future, preventing the virus from infecting cells and causing cervical cancer.
Currently, there are two HPV vaccines available, Gardasil and Cervarix. They protect against HPV types 16 and 18, which cause about 70 percent of cervical cancers, and some other HPV types that can cause cervical cancer, too. Gardasil also protects against HPV types 6 and 11, which cause 90 percent of genital warts.
The vaccine is most effective when given before an individual becomes sexually active, as they may have already been exposed to HPV. However, the vaccine can still provide some protection even if an individual has already been exposed to one or more types of HPV.
How is a cervical cancer screening performed?
Cervical cancer screenings are typically performed by a health care provider such as a gynecologist, family physician, nurse practitioner, or physician assistant. During the screening, the healthcare provider will use a device called a speculum to gently open the vagina and visualize the cervix. A small sample of cells will then be taken from the cervix with a soft brush or spatula, this sample will be analyzed to detect any abnormal cells or precancerous conditions. This procedure is called a Pap test.
In some cases, an HPV test may also be performed alongside the Pap test. The HPV test looks for the presence of the human papillomavirus, which is the main cause of cervical cancer. The Pap test and HPV test are not diagnostic tests and abnormal results will need further evaluation.
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