Cancer is characterized by the presence of abnormal cells that divide and grower faster than typical cells within the body. When these abnormal cells are present in a women’s cervix, it is known as cervical cancer. With regular gynecological exams and pap tests, cervical cancer can be detected early, when it is highly treatable.
The cervix is an organ within a woman’s body that connects the uterus to the vagina. Cervical cancer typically begins in the lining of the cervix. Cervical cancer is generally a slow growing cancer. With the use of routine pap tests, your doctor should be able to detect cervical cancer in its earliest form. Precancerous cells can often be detected and treated before full-blown cancer develops.
When precancerous cells are present, they can gradually develop into cervical cancer. These cells, however, can be treated while still in the precancerous stage. There are three types of cervical cancers:
- Squamous Cell Carcinoma: The majority of cervical cancer, between 80 and 90 percent, are classified as squamous cell carcinomas. This type of cancer starts in the squamous cells which are located in the part of the cervix closest to the vagina, known as the exocervix.
- Adenocarcinoma: Some of the remaining cervical cancers are classified as adenocarcinomas. This type of cancer forms in the part of the cervix closest to the body of the uterus, known as the endocervix. Mucus producing glands are located in the endocervix. Adenocarcinomas develop within those mucus glands.
- Adenosquamous Carcinoma: When cervical cancer has qualities of both Squamous Carcinoma and Adenocarcinoma, it may be classified as Adenosquamous Carcinoma or Mixed Carcinoma. Mixed Carcinoma is less common than the other two varieties of cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer in its earliest stage may not produce any symptoms. As the disease progresses, symptoms may begin to appear, indicating a more advanced from of cervical cancer. Symptoms may include vaginal bleeding after intercourse or between periods, heavy vaginal discharge possibly having a foul odor or containing blood, and general pelvic pain or pain during intercourse. Make an appointment with your doctor right away if you are experiencing any of these signs or symptoms. While they may not be directly related to cervical cancer, the symptoms could be the result of another health condition.
Screening And Detection
Regular screening for the detection of cervical cancer cells is imperative for all women. Routine pap tests, in which your doctor scrapes a small amount of cells from the lining of your cervix and sends them to the lab to be tested, should be a routine test during your annually scheduled gynecological exams. If precancerous cells are detected with your pap test, or if you are experiencing any signs or symptoms related to cervical cancer, your doctor will recommend further testing. In order to diagnose cervical cancer your doctor may complete the following procedures:
- Colposcopy: During the procedure your doctor will use a colposcope, a type of microscope, to examine the abnormal cells of your cervix.
- Biopsy: Your doctor will retrieve a small sample of the cells within your cervix using special tools and have the sample sent out to the laboratory for further testing. This may be done in conjunction with a colposcopy.
- Conization: During this procedure your doctor will remove a cone shaped segment of cells from your cervix and have them biopsied. Using a cone shaped sample will allow for testing to be done on deeper layers of the cervix.
Once cervical cancer is diagnosed, you will need to go through other tests to determine whether the cancer has spread. These tests will examine a range from 1 to 4 to determine what stage your cancer is in. At stage 1, the cancer cells have not spread beyond the cervix. At stage 2, the cancer has begun to spread from the cervix to the uterus but has not reached the pelvic wall or the bottom portion of the vagina. In stage 3, the cancer has progressed from the cervix and uterus to the pelvic wall or lower part of the vagina. At stage 4, the cancer has spread to nearby organs or other parts of the body. Tests such as MRI’s or CT scans may help to determine the stage of the cancer.
Causes And Risk Factors
The exact cause of cervical cancer is not known, however, many of the women diagnosed with cervical cancer have also been diagnosed with Human Papillomavirus (HPV). The presence of HPV is thought to cause the production of 2 proteins within our bodies, E6 and E7. It is believed that these proteins may be responsible for turning off some tumor suppressor genes, which in turn may permit the cervical lining cells to grow uncontrollably, causing cancer in some individuals. Since there is no definitive cause, it is important to look at other risk factors that may increase your chances of developing cervical cancer. These risk factors include:
- Presence of HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases
- Tobacco use
- Excess alcohol intake or drug use
- Genetic make-up
- Weakened immune system
The decision of how to treat cervical cancer is dependent on several factors including the stage of the cancer, the presence of underlying health conditions and your personal preference. Treatment options may include:
- Surgery: During a surgical procedure the doctor will remove the cancer cells or tissue from the cervix. Surgery may include a partial or radical hysterectomy, in which doctors will remove the cervix or uterus and possibly part of the vagina and surrounding lymph nodes, depending on how advanced the cancer is and whether or not it has spread beyond the cervix. Patients may need a round of radiation or chemotherapy in conjunction with surgery if the doctor believes it necessary to kill any excess cancer cells.
- Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to reduce or halt the growth of cancer cells. Patients using chemotherapy typically experience side effects that tend to go away after treatment is completed.
- Radiation: Radiation is the use of high energy rays, like powerful x-rays, to kill cancer cells. The radiation is targeted only to the area of the body that the cancer has invaded. Radiation is sometimes used in conjunction with chemotherapy for optimum results, especially in advanced cases of cervical cancer.
Integrative And Complementary Medicine
While integrative and complementary medicine should never be used in place of traditional medical practices, its use may be helpful in relieving some symptoms associated with cervical cancer or the actual cancer treatments. This type of medicine can help to improve the patient’s quality of life. The use of complementary treatments such as acupuncture, herbal supplements and a balanced diet and nutrition program may be helpful to patients with cervical cancer or cancer of any kind. In addition, counseling or yoga may help reduce the stress associated with the disease.
Women who have their cervical cancer diagnosed during the early stages have an excellent prognosis. With the use of routine pap tests, your doctor can conduct annual screenings tp detect the presence of precancerous cells within your cervix. Should you develop cervical cancer, there are many treatment methods available that can help to extinguish the cancer tissue. Cervical cancer that is diagnosed and treated in the early stages, before it has spread to other areas of the body or nearby tissue, has the most positive outcome. Once cancer has spread to other locations and to prominent body organs, the chance of killing off the cancer entirely decreases.