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Although cervical cancer rates have decreased in the United States in recent years, it’s still necessary to understand how to protect yourself from this potentially fatal condition. Here are some common questions about cervical cancer diagnosis, treatment options and prevention.
What is cervical cancer?
“Cervical cancer originates in the cells lining the cervix, which is a tunnel-like passage that connects the uterus and vagina,” said Lauren Krill, M.D., a gynecologic oncologist at Inspira Medical Center Mullica Hill. “When cervical cancer occurs, the cells in this part of the reproductive system grow out of control, and these malignant cells may spread to other parts of the body.” The primary cause of cervical cancer is ongoing infection with certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV).
What is HPV, and how does it cause cervical cancer?
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI), and approximately 85 percent of people will get HPV at some point during their lifetime. Although HPV is usually harmless and goes away without treatment, some high-risk forms of the virus can cause cancer. When your immune system can’t eliminate a high-risk HPV infection, its long-term presence can cause normal cells to mutate into cancerous cells in different reproductive organs, including the cervix.
Is cervical cancer deadly?
Cervical cancer is a life-threatening disease and has the potential to spread to other parts of the body. However, because it’s slow-growing, there’s a higher chance of discovering and removing precancerous cells before they develop into cancer.
What are the risk factors for cervical cancer?
“Anyone with a cervix is at risk for cervical cancer,” said Dr. Krill. “Other risk factors for cervical cancer include human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or other conditions that affect the body’s immune system, as well as smoking.” Cervical cancer is most commonly diagnosed in people between ages 35 and 44.
How do I know if I have cervical cancer?
In its early stages, cervical cancer doesn’t usually cause symptoms, so you might not realize you have it. As the disease progresses, symptoms may include abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge and pelvic pain. These symptoms could also indicate other non-cancerous, treatable conditions, but the only way to know definitively is by talking to your doctor and getting regular screenings.
How can I lower my risk for cervical cancer?
You can help prevent cervical cancer by getting the HPV vaccine, which protects against the types of HPV that typically cause cancer. Since the vaccine is most effective in people without previous exposure to the virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends it to adolescents and adults 26 and younger, ideally at ages 11 to 12. Unvaccinated adults ages 27 to 45 should talk to their doctor about whether they recommend the HPV vaccine.
You can also help lower your risk of contracting HPV by knowing the health history of your sexual partners, using condoms and not smoking. If you get infected with a high-risk type of HPV and are a smoker, you have an increased risk of developing cancer.
Cervical cancer grows slowly, so the best way to prevent it is by catching it early through regular screenings and completing any follow-up testing your doctor recommends. “Getting regular screening tests also helps lower your risk of cervical cancer by identifying precancerous cells or catching it early on,” said Dr. Krill. “An HPV screening test looks for the presence of the virus that can lead to cervical cancer, and the Papanicolaou (Pap) test looks for precancerous cells in the cervix. These tests typically occur at your annual OB/GYN visit.”
Inspira’s gynecologic oncologists diagnose and treat cancers affecting the reproductive organs and surrounding tissues, including cervical cancer. Learn more about our approach and your treatment options.
Inspira Health is a high reliability organization (HRO), which means safety is the top priority for patients and staff. To make an appointment, call 1-800-INSPIRA.