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A Comprehensive Guide to Cervical Cancer

From causes to prevention and treatment, here’s what to know about cervical cancer

There are a few types of cervical cancer, which is cancer of the cells anywhere on the surface of the cervix, which connects the uterus and vagina. This happens because of an abnormal growth of cells that have the ability to invade or spread to other parts of the body. Squamous cell carcinomas make up about 90 percent and adenocarcinomas create some 10 percent, plus there’s a small number of other types.

Cancer of the cervix typically develops from precancerous changes over 10 to 20 years. While the slow-growing cancer may not have any symptoms, especially at an early stage, later indications may include: abnormal vaginal bleeding, pelvic pain or pain during sex. This type of cancer tends to occur during midlife as half of the women diagnosed with the disease are between 35 and 55 years old. It rarely affects women under 20 and approximately 20 percent of diagnoses are made in women older than 65. Treatment could include a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Cervical cancer is almost always caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, which is connected to over 90 percent of cases. There are over 100 different types of HPV, but most of them are considered low-risk, so most people who have had HPV infections do not develop cervical cancer. It’s the high-risk HPV types that may cause cervical cell abnormalities or cancer. HPV-16 and HPV-18 are often mentioned as high-risk because 70 percent of cervical cancer cases are linked to them. HPV vaccines protect against them and may prevent up to 65 to 75 percent of cervical cancers. Other risk factors include smoking, a weak immune system, birth control pills, starting sex at a young age and having many sexual partners.

Thankfully, cervical cancer can be detected with regular Pap tests (a procedure in which cells are scraped from the cervix and looked at under a microscope). Regular Pap smears can identify precancerous changes, which, when treated, can prevent the development of cancer. Screening is then followed by a biopsy and if needed, medical imaging is then done to determine whether or not the cancer has spread. Other methods of prevention include abstaining from sex and using condoms.   

Fear, embarrassment, a lack of understanding or feeling the test is irrelevant have proven to be a common reason for avoiding making an appointment in the younger and older age groups. In disadvantaged areas where uptake is typically lower, and incidence of and deaths from cervical cancer have been shown to be higher, risk factors such as smoking and becoming sexually active at an earlier age are more commonplace.

- An abnormal Pap means a woman is at high-risk from cervical cancer.
- Older women don’t need Pap tests.
- Genital warts lead to cervical cancer.

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