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Cervical cancer is a serious concern. Whether you may have cervical cancer, or are a concerned friend, family member, or partner, you may have many questions. Here are the answers to questions people commonly ask about cervical cancer.
The cervix is the narrow end of the uterus. Cervical cancer happens if abnormal cells in the cervix grow uncontrollably. Cervical cancer takes years to develop. It can be prevented if early changes in the cervix are found and treated.
Each year about 12,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with cervical cancer. About 4,000 women die of it every year.
Cervical cancer is caused by certain types of HPV, a very common sexually transmitted infection. There are more than 100 types of HPV, and most of them do not cause cancer. Only people with high-risk types of HPV are at risk of cervical cancer.
Other factors, such as smoking, immune system problems, and certain other infections like chlamydia can increase the risk of cervical cancer. People with a family history of cervical cancer are also at greater risk.
The average age that cervical cancer is diagnosed is 48. It rarely affects those younger than 20.
Everyone who has a cervix is at risk for cervical cancer. So no matter who you have sex with or how you identify your gender, it’s important to protect your cervical health.
Here are four things you can do to protect yourself from cervical cancer:
- Get regular Pap tests. Pap tests allow health care providers to find pre-cancerous changes and treat them before cervical cancer develops.
- Get the HPV vaccine. It protects against two types of HPV that cause 70 percent of cervical cancer cases. Make sure to get all three shots of the vaccine on schedule.
- Use condoms. Condoms help reduce the spread of HPV during sex by preventing some (but not all) skin-to-skin contact.
- If you smoke, stop. Smoking increases the chance of getting cervical cancer in people who have high-risk types of HPV.
Abnormal cervical cells that are not yet cancer do not usually cause any symptoms. Once cervical cancer develops, early signs can include abnormal bleeding, spotting, or watery discharge. Periods may be heavier than usual, and bleeding may occur after sex. Signs of advanced cervical cancer may include pelvic pain, problems urinating, and swollen legs.
If you have had an abnormal Pap test and your health care provider thinks you may have cervical cancer or cells that may lead to cancer, she or he will perform a colposcopy to examine your cervix more closely. It may include a biopsy – a procedure to remove a small piece of tissue from the cervix. The tissue is then sent to a lab and examined for signs of cervical cancer.
If cervical cancer develops, it is most often treated with surgery, radiation therapy, and/or chemotherapy. Often, surgical treatment will be a hysterectomy – a surgical procedure to remove the uterus. The type of treatment depends on how far the cancer has developed and if it has spread to other parts of the body. Sometimes more than one treatment is necessary.
Cervical cancer is a treatable condition, and if it’s found and treated early, there’s a good chance for a full recovery. However, cervical cancer treatments can affect fertility. If you have a hysterectomy, you will not be able to get pregnant after the surgery. If you have cervical cancer, your health care provider will talk through treatment options with you and discuss risks and side effects, including effects on future pregnancies.
Q&A with Dr. Cullins