What is Cervical Cancer?
Cancer is a disease in which the cells in the body begin to divide and multiply uncontrollably. Cells in just about any part of the body can become cancerous. Cervical cancer is a form of cancer that occurs in the cells of the cervix – which is the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina.
Cervical cancer is one of the most common cancers affecting women. Precancerous cells are normally found during routine pap smears, so early detection is common and death rates from the disease are relatively low. Cervical cancer occurs in about 8 women out of every 100,000 per year in the United States, and the death rate is 2.4 deaths per 100,000 per year among women diagnosed with the disease.
There are two main types of cervical cancer, including:
- Squamous cell carcinoma. The majority of cervical cancers are squamous cell carcinoma. It starts in the thin, flat cells (squamous cells) lining the outer part of the cervix, which projects into the vagina.
- Adenocarcinoma. This type of cervical cancer begins in the column-shaped glandular cells that line the cervical canal.
In some cases, both cell types are involved in cervical cancer, but only in rare cases are other cells in the cervix involved.
Cervical Cancer Symptoms
In the early stages of cervical cancer, there are hardly any signs and symptoms. In advanced stages of cervical cancer, the signs and symptoms may include:
- Vaginal bleeding after having intercourse, in between periods or after menopause
- Bloody vaginal discharge that is watery and may have a foul smell
- Pelvic or general pain during sexual intercourse
Cervical Cancer Causes
It is not totally clear what causes cervical cancer, but doctors do know the primary risk factor for the disease is the presence of human papillomavirus (HPV) - a sexually transmitted infection. You can reduce your risk for contracting HPV by quitting smoking and avoiding risky sex, in addition to having annual screening tests (pap smears) and getting the HPV vaccine.
Other risk factors for cervical cancer include:
- Having many sexual partners
- Having sex starting at an early age
- A weak immune system
- Having another sexually transmitted infection
Cervical Cancer Diagnosis
There are screening tests used to make a diagnosis for cervical cancer. Women’s health guidelines recommend these screening tests for all women older than 21, although screening in sexually active teenagers can be beneficial as well. Screening tests include:
- Pap test. During a Pap test, the doctor scrapes and brushes cells from the cervix, which are then examined in a lab for abnormalities. A Pap test can detect abnormal cells in the cervix, including cancer cells and cells that show changes that increase the risk of cervical cancer.
- HPV DNA test. The HPV DNA test involves testing cells collected from the cervix for infection with any of the types of HPV that are most likely to lead to cervical cancer. This test may be an option for women age 30 and older, or for younger women with an abnormal Pap test.
A biopsy and close examination of the cells is required for making an absolutely diagnosis of cervical cancer.
Once a diagnosis is made, an Adena Health oncologist can pinpoint your stage of cervical cancer. The stages are indicated using Roman numerals ranging from “I to IV” – with stage I indicating that the cancer is confined to the cervix and stage IV indicating that the cancer has spread to distant areas of the body.
Cervical Cancer Treatment Options
Treatment for cervical cancer typically involves some combination of medications and surgery.
Cervical Cancer Surgery
Surgical options for cervical cancer are appropriate for early-stage cervical cancer, and they are performed by oncology or gynecological surgery specialists. The options include:
- Simply hysterectomy, which involves removing the cervix and uterus. This is only an option for very early-stage cervical cancer.
- Radical hysterectomy, which involves removing the cervix, uterus, part of the vagina and lymph nodes in the area.
Because all procedures involve removing the uterus, it is impossible for women to become pregnant after surgical treatment for cervical cancer.
Chemotherapy refers to using medications to prevent cancer cells from dividing and spreading. Chemotherapy can be used at any stage of cervical cancer, though it is typically only used in the advanced stages once the cells have spread. There are many different cancer drugs, including:
- Gemcitabine (Gemzar)
- 5-fluorouracil (5-FU)
- Irinotecan (Camptosar)
- Oxaliplatin (Eloxatin)
- Albumin-bound paclitaxel (Abraxane)
- Capecitabine (Xeloda)
- Paclitaxel (Taxol)
- Docetaxel (Taxotere)
- Irinotecan liposome (Onivyde)
Medications can be used to either alleviate painful or uncomfortable symptoms or as targeted therapies to try and attack specific changes that happen in the cancer cell to help them grow.
Adena Health’s Cervical Cancer Care
The Adena Health Cancer Center provides care for a variety of cancers, including cervical cancer. If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with cervical cancer, our oncology and gynecological specialist will work to create a treatment plan that helps you fight your cancer together.