Cervical cancer is cancer that starts in the cervix, the narrow portion of the uterus that extends to the vagina. More than 13,000 women in the United States will be diagnosed with cervical cancer each year. Cervical cancer is the fourth most common type of cancer for women worldwide, but because it develops slowly over time, it is also one of the most preventable cancers. Deaths from cervical cancer in the United States continue to decline by approximately 2 percent a year. This decline is primarily due to the widespread use of the Pap test to detect cervical abnormalities and allow for early treatment. Most women who have abnormal cervical cell changes that progress to cervical cancer have never had a Pap test or have not had one in the previous three to five years.
Cervical Cancer Risk Factors
All women are at risk for cervical cancer, and it is most frequently diagnosed in women between the ages of 35 and 44. It rarely affects women under age 20, and more than 15 percent of diagnoses are made in women older than 65.
Almost all cervical cancers are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), a common virus that can be passed from one person to another during sex. There are many types of HPV. Some HPV types can cause changes on a woman’s cervix that can lead to cervical cancer over time, while other types can cause genital or skin warts.
HPV is so common that most people get it at some time in their lives. HPV usually causes no symptoms so you can’t tell that you have (or have had) it. For most women, HPV will go away on its own; however, if it does not, there is a chance that over time it may cause cervical cancer.
Other things associated with increased risk of cervical cancer—
- Having HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) or another condition that weakens the immune system.
- Using birth control pills for a long time (five or more years)
- Having given birth to three or more children
- Increased number ofl sexual partners
Cervical Cancer Symptoms
Early on, cervical cancer may not cause signs and symptoms. Advanced cervical cancer may cause bleeding or discharge from the vagina that is not normal for you.
Cervical Cancer Prevention
The most important thing you can do to help prevent cervical cancer is to get vaccinated early and have regular screening tests.
The HPV vaccine protects against the types of HPV that most often cause cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers.
- HPV vaccination is recommended for preteens aged 11 to 12 years, but can be given starting at age 9.
- HPV vaccine also is recommended for everyone through age 26 years, if they are not vaccinated already.
- HPV vaccination is not recommended for everyone older than age 26 years. However, some adults age 27 through 45 years who are not already vaccinated may decide to get the HPV vaccine after speaking with their doctor about their risk for new HPV infections and the possible benefits of vaccination. HPV vaccination in this age range provides less benefit, as more people have already been exposed to HPV.
If vaccination is started before age 15, a two-dose schedule is recommended, with the doses given 6 to 12 months apart. For people who start the series after their 15th birthday, the vaccine is given in a series of three shots.
HPV vaccination prevents new HPV infections, but does not treat existing infections or diseases. This is why the HPV vaccine works best when given before any exposure to HPV. You should get screened for cervical cancer regularly, even if you received an HPV vaccine.
Cervical Cancer Treatment
For the earliest stages of cervical cancer, either surgery or definitive radiation may be used. For later stages, radiation combined with chemo is usually the main treatment. Chemo (by itself) is often used to treat cervical cancer that has spread to other parts of the body, with radiation reserved for improving symptoms.
Radiation Therapy at CCC
Douglas County patients with cervical cancer who are candidates for radiation therapy have access to state-of-the-art treatment at the Community Cancer Center. The specific course of therapy chosen depends on the cancer stage and individual patient risk factors.
For locally advanced cervical cancer, patients often receive a combination of external beam radiation given daily over five weeks with radiosensitizing chemotherapy, which is followed by internal radiation (called brachytherapy).