January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month and each year, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), about 13,000 new cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed and about 4,000 women die from this disease.
Cervical cancer is the third most common type of cancer in women. Hispanic women have the highest rates of developing cervical cancer, and Black women have the highest rates of dying from cervical cancer.
What Is Cervical Cancer?
Cervical cancer, according to Cancer.gov, is a type of gynecologic cancer that starts in the cervix.
The cervix is the narrow passage forming the lower part of the uterus (womb). Most of the time, early cervical cancer has no symptoms. Symptoms may not begin until the cancer has grown and spread into nearby tissue. The most common symptoms of cervical cancer may include:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding between periods, after intercourse, or after menopause
- Unusual vaginal discharge that may contain some blood and may be pale, watery, pink, brown, bloody, or foul-smelling.
- Periods that become heavier and last longer than usual
- Pain during sex
Cervical Cancer Risk Factors
Almost all cervical cancers are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), a common virus that is spread through sexual intercourse. There are many different types (strains) of HPV. Some strains lead to cervical cancer, other strains can cause genital warts, and others do not cause any problems at all.
Risk factors for cervical cancer include:
- HPV infection
- Family history of cervical cancer
- Risky sexual practices (i.e., sex at an early age, multiple sexual partners)
- Being economically disadvantaged
- Being overweight or obese
- Having a mother who took the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES) during pregnancy in the early 1960s to prevent miscarriage
- Having a weakened immune system
- Chlamydia infection
- Diet low in fruits and vegetables
- Long-term use of birth control pills
- IUD use
- Having multiple full-term pregnancies
- Being younger than 17 at first full-term pregnancy
Prevention & Screening
There isn’t guaranteed prevention against cervical cancer but maintaining a healthy weight through diet and exercise and avoiding smoking and other tobacco products will reduce the risk of cervical cancer, according to Cancer.gov.
The goal of screening for cervical cancer is to find precancerous cervical cell changes when treatment can prevent cervical cancer from developing.
Ohio-based Gynecologist Juliet Wolford encourages women to get routine screenings and those screenings play a major factor in more women living longer.
“Once the pap test came into play, that completely reduced that number of deaths from cervical cancer”, she said. “We can catch lesions and catch them early, but that can only happen if patients are getting regular screenings.”
To detect cervical cancer at its earliest stage, Wolford said, women should have annual well-woman doctor visits, including regular pelvic exams.
A primary care provider or gynecologist can recommend the right female cancer screenings and diagnostic tests based on age, lifestyle, and family history. Wolford also said cervical cancers diagnosed at an early stage had a five-year relative survival probability than those diagnosed at a more distant or advanced stage.
The HPV vaccine, Wolford said, can almost always prevent cervical cancer, and anyone under the age of 45 is encouraged to get it.
Also, the CDC conducted research and found the percentage of cervical precancers caused by HPV have dropped by 40% among vaccinated women.
“We really want to promote early vaccination, cervical cancer screening and visiting your OB GYN provider often so you can check in,” Wolford said. “It’s so important and will have such an impact on your future.”
There are three main ways to screen for cervical cancer:
- The human papillomavirus (HPV) test checks cells for infection with high-risk HPV types that can cause cervical cancer.
- The Pap test (also called a Pap smear or cervical cytology) collects cervical cells so they can be checked for changes caused by HPV that may—if left untreated—turn into cervical cancer.
- The HPV/Pap co-1test uses an HPV test and Pap test together to check for both high-risk HPV and cervical cell changes.
For more information, visit https://www.cancer.gov/types/cervical