Cervical Cancer Awareness Month: What you need to know
Throughout the month of January, millions across the world are showcasing their teal and white ribbons in support of cervical cancer awareness. Although generally described as preventable and treatable when caught in the early stages, 300,000 women from around the world die each year from the disease. In fact – 80% of those deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, largely due to poor access to prevention, screening, and treatment. At NVFP, we aim to increase awareness and promote cervical health for women around the world.
What causes cervical cancer?
Most often found in women between ages 35 – 44, cervical cancer starts in the cells of the cervix, which is the lower part of the uterus. There are two main types of cervical cancer; the first and most common being Squamous cell carcinoma, which begins in the cells lining the outer part of the cervix. The second type is adenocarcinoma, which begins in the glandular cells lining the cervical canal.
While there are other risk factors including HIV (the virus that causes AIDS), smoking, and multiple sexual partners, cervical cancer cases are most often caused by human papillomavirus, or HPV. HPV is a sexually transmitted infection that is spread from sexual skin-to-skin contact. It is a very common virus – so common that most people get it at one point in their lives without even knowing it.
For most women, your immune system will fight off HPV, or in some cases may cause (treatable) genital or skin warts. However, more severe types of HPV can cause changes to the cells in a woman’s cervix, which leads to cancer over time. Cervical cancer is not the only cancer linked to HPV – multiple others including cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, mouth, and throat can be linked to HPV.
In the early stages, cervical cancer may not cause signs or symptoms. As it progresses, cervical cancer may cause concerning symptoms such as unusual bleeding or discharge from the vagina, pelvic pain, or pain during sexual intercourse. While these signs do not always mean cancer, it is imperative that you see your primary care doctor for a screening right away if you begin to notice any of these symptoms.
How do you diagnose and treat cervical cancer?
To diagnose the disease, your primary care provider can run multiple screening tests including a PAP test, used to detect abnormal cells in the cervix, as well as an HPV DNA test, used to test cells that are collected from the cervix for infection. These screenings are available and recommended for women 21 and older.
If your primary care doctor believes the symptoms to be linked to cervical cancer, your doctor may refer you to a gynecologic oncologist. The oncologist will then run a multitude of examinations, taking a sample of the cervical cells for laboratory testing. If cancer is found, your gynecologic oncologist, as well as your primary care provider, will work with you to determine a plan.
When treating cervical cancer, the severity of the diagnoses, along with any other health complications you may have, will determine the treatment plan. Typical treatments for cervical cancer include surgery to remove the cancer tissue; chemotherapy, which uses specific medicine to shrink or kill the cancer, as well as radiation, involving high-energy rays that kill the cancer.
Throughout the month of January, stay tuned for more important cervical cancer information from NVFP, including vaccination and screening information. Remember that when discovered early, cervical cancer is treatable and often associated with a long survival rate. At NVFP, we aim to be a resource for your healthcare questions and needs. To schedule a screening or physical with your primary care provider, visit the patient portal, or call our office.