Cancer and Women: Cervical CancerWednesday, March 5, 2008 23:58
What is it?
The cervix, which is sometimes referred to as the mouth or opening or the womb, is the narrow part of the uterus which connects the uterus to the vagina. The cervix has a small opening, which allows sperm to enter the uterus, and allows menstrual blood to flow out of the uterus. The cervix dilates to allow a baby to pass through during childbirth.
Cervical Cancer Basics
According to the American Cancer Society, about 11,070 cases of invasive cervical cancer will be diagnosed in the United States, and about 3,870 women will die from cervical cancer in 2008. The single most common risk factor for developing cervical cancer is infection with certain strains of human papillomavirus (HPV). There are many types of HPV, ranging from strains that cause common warts of the hands and feet, strains which cause genital warts and those that can infect the cervix and cause cervical cancer. People can carry the types of HPV which cause cervical cancer without knowing it, because they usually don’t cause any symptoms.
Cervical cancer is most common in women over 40. Women who don’t get regular pap smears are at an increased risk of developing cervical cancer because they miss the opportunity to detect early signs of HPV infection in the cells of the cervix. Women with many sexual partners, women who begin having sex at a young age, and women who have sex with men who’ve had many partners have an increased risk of developing cervical cancer. Other risk factors include smoking, having many full term pregnancy use, and longterm (5-10 years or more) use of birth control pills. Cervical cancer is more common in Hispanic and black women than in caucasian women.
Having regular pap smears is an effective way to detect changes in the cells of your cervix, which may develop into cancer. Typically, women should have their first pap smear at the age of 21, or three years after they first have intercourse, whichever comes first. If you have an abnormal pap smear, an additional test looking for HPV DNA is usually ordered to ordered check for HPV infection. The results of both the pap smear and HPV test can help your doctor decide what to do next.
Women who are generally healthy, and have never had an abnormal pap smear or cervical cancer, should usually have a pap smear every 1-3 years. Your doctor or nurse can tell you exactly how often you should have one done. Women who have had a history of abnormal pap smears usually need to have them more often.
A pap smear is done during a pelvic exam, by your gynecologist or family doctor. During a pap smear, a small brush is used to remove some cells from the cervix, and the cells are sent to a laboratory to be examined. Pap smears are usually painless, although you might feel some mild pinching or cramping, or have some spotting afterwards.
Early stages of cervical cancer usually don’t show any signs or symptoms. However, if you experience bleeding with intercourse, vaginal bleeding between periods or bleeding after menopause, you should contact you doctor about it right away. As cervical cancer progresses, women might experience pain during intercourse, pelvic pain, increased discharge or heavier periods.
If a woman experiences symptoms of cervical cancer, or has an abnormal pap smear, a colposcopy can be performed to look more closely at the cervix using a bright light and magnifying lens. During a colposcopy, which is usually performed in a doctor’s office, some acetic acid (vinegar) or iodine can be placed on the cervix to help see abnormalities. Then, biopsies can be taken to be sent to a lab for further analysis.