Cervical cancer is cancer of the cervix, the lower, narrow part of the uterus. The uterus is the hollow, pear-shaped organ where a baby grows during a woman’s pregnancy.
The cervix forms a canal that opens into the vagina (birth canal), which leads to the outside of the body.
Cervical cancer is a disease that can be very serious. However, it is a preventable disease.
Cervical cancer occurs when normal cells in the cervix change into cancer cells. This normally takes several years to happen, but it can also happen in a very short period of time.
The good news is that there are ways to help prevent cervical cancer. By getting regular Pap tests and pelvic exams, health care providers can find and treat the changing cells before they turn into cancer.
According to the U.S. Cancer Statistics: 2004 Incidence and Mortality report, 11,892 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer, and 3,850 women died from the disease that year.
Any woman who has a cervix can get cervical cancer, especially if she or her sexual partner has had sex with several other partners.
Most often, cervical cancer develops in women aged 40 or older. Abnormal cells in the cervix and cervical cancer don’t always cause symptoms, especially at first.
That’s why getting tested for cervical cancer is important, even if there are no symptoms. When it is found early and treated, cervical cancer is highly curable. Most deaths from cervical cancer could have been avoided if women had received a regular Pap test.
Doctors recommend that women begin having regular Pap tests and pelvic exams at age 21, or within three years of the first time they have sexual intercourse.
National guidelines recommend that after a woman has a Pap test each year for three years in a row, and test results show there are no problems, she can then get the Pap test once every two - three years.
Research has found several factors that may affect a person’s risk of developing cervical cancer.
• Infection with certain types of human papillomavirus
• A high number of sexual partners
• Many full-term pregnancies
• Use of oral contraceptives
• Infrequent Pap tests and cervical examinations
• Diet low in fruits and vegetables.
A virus known as human papillomavirus also called HPV can sometimes lead to cervical cancer. HPV can cause normal cells on the cervix to turn abnormal.
Most of the time, HPV goes away on its own. When HPV goes away, cervical cells go back to normal. But if HPV lingers for many years, these abnormal cells can turn into cancer.
Screening tests can find early signs of cervical cancer. The Pap test and HPV test help screen for cervical cancer, but they look for different things. The Pap test looks for cell changes on the cervix that could develop into cervical cancer.
The HPV test looks for HPV, the virus that can cause these cell changes. If the Pap test finds serious changes in the cells of the cervix, the doctor will suggest more powerful tests to see the cells of the vagina and cervix in detail.
A new HPV vaccine is now available for females, ages 9 - 26. It protects against the four HPV types that cause most cervical cancers.
But it does not treat existing HPV, cervical cell changes. The vaccine will be most effective in females who have not yet had sex since they are unlikely to have HPV. But young sexually active females may still benefit.