Cervical Cancer – Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, & Treatment
What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is a cancer that occurs in the cervix. The cervix is the lower part of the uterus (womb) that opens at the top of the vagina. Cervical cancer is the third most common type of cancer in women globally.
What causes cervical cancer?
Almost all cervical cancers are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a common virus that is spread through sexual intercourse. There are many different strains of HPV, most of which are considered low risk. Some high-risk strains like HPV-16 and HPV-18 cause cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer occurs in the cells on the surface of the cervix. There are 2 types of cells on the surface of the cervix, squamous and columnar. Most cervical cancers are from squamous cells.
Women with a persistent HPV infection are at greater risk of developing cervical cell abnormalities and cancer. Women with certain sexual practices and patterns have a higher risk of developing cervical cancer. The following sexual practices increase the risk:
- Having sex at an early age
- Having multiple sexual partners
- Having a partner or many partners who take part in high-risk sexual activities
The following are the other risk factors for cervical cancer:
- Not getting the HPV vaccine
- Being economically disadvantaged
- Having a weakened immune system
What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?
Mostly, early-stage cervical cancer does not cause any symptoms. If and when symptoms occur, they include:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding between periods, after intercourse, or after menopause
- Vaginal discharge that does not stop, and may be pale, watery, pink, brown, bloody, or foul-smelling
- Periods that become heavier and last longer than usual
Cervical cancer tends to spread to the bladder, intestines, lungs, and liver. Often, there are no symptoms or problems until the cancer is advanced and has spread. The following are the symptoms of advanced cervical cancer:
- Leaking of urine or feces from the vagina
- Pelvic pain
- Single swollen leg
- Back pain
- Bone pain or fractures
- Leg pain
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
How is cervical cancer diagnosed?
Your doctor cannot detect precancerous changes of the cervix and cervical cancer during a normal pelvic exam. Your doctor needs to do the following tests to detect such conditions:
- Pap Smear Test: This test screens for precancerous changes and cancer, but does not make a final diagnosis.
- Human Papillomavirus (HPV) DNA Test: This test may be done along with a Pap test or it may be done after a woman has had an abnormal Pap test result. It may also be used as the first test.
- Colposcopy: If abnormal changes are found, this procedure is done to examine the cervix. Pieces of tissue are removed from the cervix during this procedure and sent to a lab for examination.
- Cone Biopsy: This procedure may also be done to examine the cervical tissue in a lab.
Your doctor will order staging tests if cervical cancer is diagnosed to determine how far cancer has spread. Staging comprises the following tests:
- Chest x-ray
- CT scan of the pelvis
- Intravenous pyelogram (IVP)
- MRI of the pelvis
How is cervical cancer treated?
Early cervical cancer can be cured by removing or destroying the precancerous or cancerous tissue. This is why routine Pap smears are so important to prevent cervical cancer. Various surgical procedures are available to do this without removing the uterus or damaging the cervix so that a woman can still have children in the future.
Treatment of cervical cancer depends on the size and shape of the tumor, the stage of cancer, and the woman’s age and general health. The desire of the woman to have or not to have children in the future will also be considered. Treatment options include surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.
The following surgical procedures are available to cure early cervical cancer:
- Loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP): This procedure uses electricity to remove abnormal tissue
- Cryotherapy: This procedure is used to freeze abnormal cells
- Laser therapy: This procedure uses light to burn abnormal tissue
- Hysterectomy: This procedure may be done depending on the medical requirement. It can be either total hysterectomy or partial hysterectomy. This procedure may be done in women who have had repeated LEEP procedures.
The following are the treatment options for more advanced cervical cancer:
- Radical Hysterectomy: This procedure is done to remove the uterus and much of the surrounding tissues, including lymph nodes and the upper part of the vagina.
- Pelvic Exenteration: This is an extreme type of surgery in which all of the organs of the pelvis, including the bladder and rectum, are removed.
Radiation therapy involves shrinking tumors with high-energy radiation. Generally, radiation therapy is used to treat cancer that has spread beyond the cervix or cancer that has recurred.
This involves treatment with medicines. Depending on the medical requirement, doctors may give chemotherapy along with surgery or radiation.
This feature is for informational purposes only and is not intended to substitute the expert guidance of a doctor. We advise seeing a doctor if you have any health concerns.