For a long time, cervical cancer was one of the most common causes of cancer death for women in the U.S. Now, thanks to the increased use of two highly effective screening tests – the Pap test and HPV test – the death rate has dropped significantly over the last 50 years. These tests make it possible to detect cervical cancer at a very early stage where treatment can be much more effective. As a result, cervical cancer is no longer a leading cause of cancer deaths. Yet, in 2022 the American Cancer Society estimated more than 14,000 women in the U.S. would be diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer.
Less than half of women who contract cervical cancer are diagnosed at an early stage. Having regular screening tests and paying attention to any signs and symptoms of cervical cancer is the best way to avoid delays in diagnosis and improve your chances of surviving the disease.
“The best prevention for cervical cancer in women is screenings,” says Dr. Suzanne Schweikert. “Cervical cancer has very few symptoms – bleeding usually occurs late in the disease – which is why we screen all women. It’s the best way to detect any signs of cervical cancer at an early stage when treatment is most effective.”
The following blog provides additional information about cervical cancer in women for self-awareness and preventative steps to ensure your best health journey.
What Causes Cervical Cancer
The main cause of cervical cancer is a long-lasting infection from certain types of human Papillomavirus (HPV), a common virus passed from one person to another during sex. Most sexually active people become infected with HPV at some point in their lives. However, for most women it usually goes away on its own. If not, it can cause cervical cancer.
Other factors can increase the chances of developing cervical cancer. Smoking tobacco can cause cancer anywhere in the body, including the cervix. Having HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and other conditions that weaken the immune system can also lead to cervical cancer.
The Importance of Early Diagnosis
Early detection of cervical cancer greatly improves the chances for successful treatment. The best way to detect early-stage cervical cancer is to have regular screenings with the HPV and/or Pap tests to identify changes that could become precancer or cervical cancer. The HPV test looks for the human Papillomavirus that can cause cell changes. The Pap test, also known as a Pap smear, looks for precancers.
Both tests can be performed in a doctor’s office or clinic. If you have a low income or no health insurance, you may be able to get free or low-cost screening tests through CDC’s National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program. Find out if you qualify.
When Should Women be Screened for Cervical Cancer
Paps are no longer done yearly for most women. The following schedule outlines the recommendations for Pap smear tests based on age:
- Age 21-30: Pap smear every 3 years
- Age 30-plus: co-test (Pap and HPV) every 5 years
- Age 65-plus: have an informed discussion with your provider when deciding if/when to stop.
- Frequency can change if a woman of any age has an abnormal Pap or a positive HPV screen
“The frequency of Pap and HPV testing depends on your age and past test results,” adds Dr. Schweikert. “If a woman was used to getting yearly Pap smears, she may be worried if we are no longer screening her as often. We need to reassure women that by adding the HPV test and taking their personal Pap history into account, we can better predict their risk of cervical cancer. It is no longer a ‘one size fits all’ screening but instead is based on their personal risk of cancer. Some women will get screened less often while others will need screening more often. This should prevent cancer better and results in less testing for women who do not need it.”
TrueCare provides Women’s Health services in San Marcos and Oceanside, in additional to primary care providers at many of our other locations in San Diego County and Perris.
It is important to note that a pelvic exam is not the same thing as a Pap smear. Sometimes women think they had a Pap test, when they really had a pelvic exam or STI screening. A Pap test involves taking a sample of cells from the cervix and is not routinely done at all pelvic exams.
Preventing Cervical Cancer
Regular screenings from an early age, not smoking cigarettes, and using condoms during sex can help prevent cervical cancer.
Vaccines for HPV can significantly reduce the risk of developing cervical cancers caused by HPV infections. They are most effective if received before exposure to the HVP virus. Doctors recommend getting the vaccination from age 11 through 26. Some adults get vaccinated to avoid new infections. However, if they have already been exposed to HPV, the vaccine will likely provide less benefit.
If you have a family member or friend aged 11 – 26 who did not receive the recommended HPV vaccines, encourage them to ask their provider about it!
The HPV vaccine is now available in both adult medicine and women’s health services and is covered by Family Planning, Access, Care and Treatment (Family PACT) and medical insurance for all women up to age 45.
“All women under age 46 should talk to their provider about getting caught up on this vaccine.” urges Dr. Schweikert. “One study showed that women with high grade dysplasia who got the vaccine had a lower recurrence rate, which suggests that the vaccine can help our immune system fight a previous HPV infection. This is extremely exciting, and we hope future studies will show similar results.”
What Is Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer occurs only in women. It begins in the lower end of the uterus (the cervix) and usually develops slowly over time. Cervical cells undergo a change, known as dysplasia, that causes abnormal cells to appear in the cervical tissue. If the abnormal cells aren’t destroyed or removed, they can become cancer cells that spread deeper into the cervix and surrounding areas.
There are two types of cervical cancers:
- Squamous cell carcinoma cancers develop from cells in the outer part of the cervix and make up 90% of all cervical cancers.
- Adenocarcinoma develops in glandular cells lining the inner part of the cervix and can easily spread throughout the surrounding tissues.
Cervical cancer that exhibits features of both types is called mixed carcinoma or adenosquamous carcinoma.
Symptoms and Signs of Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer can be hard to detect because it typically doesn’t produce symptoms in the early stages. Instead, symptoms generally begin after the cancer has spread. When early-stage symptoms occur, they can include:
- Vaginal bleeding after sex or menopause
- Vaginal bleeding between periods
- Heavier or longer than normal periods
- Watery vaginal discharge with a strong odor or containing blood
- Pain in the pelvis or during sex
Symptoms of advanced cervical cancer can include the symptoms of early-stage cervical cancer and:
- Difficult or painful bowel movements
- Bleeding from the rectum when having a bowel movement
- Difficult or painful urination
- Blood in the urine
- Dull backache
- Swelling of the legs
- Pain in the abdomen
- Feeling tired
These symptoms can be caused by conditions other than cervical cancer. If you experience any of them on a consistent basis, see your doctor as soon as possible. Ignoring symptoms can delay treatment, make it less effective, and reduce the chances of survival.
Can Cervical Cancer Be Cured
Survival rates depend on the stage at which the cancer is diagnosed. Cervical cancer is generally viewed as treatable and curable, particularly if it is diagnosed at an early stage. When detected early, the 5-year survival rate for patients with invasive cervical cancer is 92%. If the cancer has spread to surrounding tissues, organs, or regional lymph nodes, the 5-year survival rate is 58%. Once the cancer spreads to a distant part of the body, the 5-year survival rate shrinks to 18%.
Treatment for cervical cancer consists of surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, or a combination of the three. Most early-stage cervical cancers are treated with a hysterectomy to remove the cervix, uterus, part of the vagina and nearby lymph nodes. However, the treatment can depend on the stage of the cancer, other health problems, and your preferences.
Difference Between Cervical Cancer and Ovarian Cancer
Ovarian cancer is sometimes mistaken for cervical cancer. Both are gynecologic cancers, but they occur in various parts of the female reproductive system and exhibit different symptoms.
Ovarian cancer develops in the fallopian tubes and moves to the ovaries on each side of the uterus. Symptoms can include:
• Swollen or bloated abdomen
• Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
• Pain or pressure or pain in the abdomen or pelvis
• Urgency or frequency when urinating
• Change in bowel habits producing constipation and/or diarrhea
Regular screenings can help detect this cancer at an early age and ensure you receive the proper treatment.
How to Get Screened
If you if you have not been screened for cervical cancer with a Pap or HPV test in the past few years, or are experiencing any cervical cancer symptoms, please schedule an appointment with a provider. as soon as possible. One visit could save the life of you or your loved one.
TrueCare offers a wide range of affordable services from primary care to behavioral health and chiropractic treatment! If you are looking for a provider in San Diego or Riverside County, TrueCare is your patient-centered medical home! Our providers are compassionate and care for your well-being.
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