Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that occurs in the cells of the cervix, which is the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. It can be a deadly disease if not detected and treated early.
Cervical cancer used to be the number one cause of death for women—that is, until Dr. George Papanicolaou introduced the Pap test in the 1940s. This simple test, which collects cells from the cervix and analyzes them under a microscope, has succeeded in reducing the death rate from cervical cancer by more than 50 percent.
The good news is that regular screening and follow-up care can prevent most deaths from cervical cancer. Even better, you can get screened at no cost to you. The health care reform act covers cervical cancer screenings, part of a "well-woman visit."
Because it usually takes several years for normal cells in the cervix to turn into cancer cells, it's imperative to get regular screenings, either with a Pap test or HPV test (or both).
Rarely seen in women younger than 20, cervical cancer most commonly occurs in midlife. Yet, many older women don't realize the risk still exists as they age. In fact, more than 15 percent of cervical cancer cases occur in women over 65.
Although the death rate has dropped considerably, women are still dying of the disease. The American Cancer Society estimated that about 12,900 women in the United States would be diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer in 2015 and about 4,100 would die from it.
The human papillomavirus (HPV), which spreads through sexual contact, causes cervical cancer. Fortunately, most women's bodies can fight the HPV infection before it leads to cancer. But your risk for cervical cancer climbs if you smoke, have had many children, use birth control pills for an extended period or have HIV.
Girls and young women should consider getting the HPV vaccine (given in a series of three vaccines), which can protect against several types of the virus, including some that cause cancer. The vaccine is effective only before an infection is contracted, so experts recommend that girls and boys get vaccinated before becoming sexually active. Experts advise beginning the vaccines at age 11 or 12, though it may be started younger or given later. For complete information about the vaccine, click here.
Even if you've been vaccinated, you need to continue regular cervical cancer screenings, because the vaccine does not protect against all HPV cancer-causing strains.
What's equally important is for you to be aware of the warning signs of cervical cancer, which may not cause any symptoms at first (when they are pre-cancers or early cancers), but later on, may affect you with pelvic pain or vaginal bleeding.
Here are 9 warning signs of cervical cancer that you should not ignore:
Abnormal vaginal bleeding: Any vaginal bleeding that is not a normal part of your menstrual cycle should be evaluated. This can include bleeding between periods, after sex, or after menopause.
Unusual discharge: A change in the color, smell, or consistency of vaginal discharge can be a sign of cervical cancer.
Pain during sex: Pain during intercourse can be caused by many things, but if it is persistent, it should be evaluated by a doctor.
Pelvic pain: Persistent pain or discomfort in the pelvic area can be a sign of cervical cancer.
Pain during urination: Pain or burning during urination can be a sign of an infection, but it can also be a sign of cervical cancer.
Changes in bowel movements: Cervical cancer can cause changes in bowel movements, such as constipation or diarrhea.
Unexplained weight loss: Unexplained weight loss can be a symptom of many types of cancer, including cervical cancer.
Fatigue: Feeling tired all the time can be a sign of cervical cancer.
Swollen leg: Swelling in one leg can be a sign that cervical cancer has spread to the lymph nodes.
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it is important to see your doctor as soon as possible. However, it is important to note that many of these symptoms can also be caused by other conditions, so it is not always a sign of cervical cancer. That is why it is important to get regular screenings, such as a Pap smear, to detect any abnormalities in the cervix.
In conclusion, cervical cancer is a serious disease that can be prevented and treated if caught early. That is why it is important to be aware of the warning signs and to get regular screenings. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above, make an appointment with your doctor and get evaluated. Your health is too important to ignore.