Learn more about preventing, diagnosing, and treating cervical cancer.
What is Cervical Cancer?
Cervical cancer is a type of cancer affecting women’s cervix, or the organ connecting the vagina and the bottom of the uterus. If caught in the early stages, it can be cured.
Risk factors for cervical cancer
One of the most prominent risk factors for cervical cancer is Human papillomavirus infection or HPV. Papillomas are warts that can infect the following areas: external skin, the mouth and throat, anus, and genitals. The warts spread through skin-to-skin contact, especially during sexual activity. Not all of the viruses associated with HPV are linked to cancer, but there are some that are considered high-risk as they can cause cancer. Chronic HPV infections can lead to cervical cancer.
Smoking is another risk factor for cancer in general. Many harmful substances are released while someone smokes, which negatively affects that person and those around them. Beyond increasing women’s risk for cervical cancer, smoking also weakens the immune system.
Other risk factors for cervical cancer include:
- Weak immune systems
- Chlamydia infections
- Multiple sexual partners
- Long-term use of birth control pills
- Use of an intrauterine devices (IUD)
- Family history of cervical cancer
- Poor diet
An HPV vaccine is available to reduce the risk of the HPV viruses that are most commonly linked to cancer.
Symptoms of cervical cancer
Symptoms of cervical cancer can include:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding
- Increases in vaginal discharge
- Pain during sex
- Pelvic pain
Tests for cervical cancer
An abnormal pap smear (a screening test that’s usually part of a well-woman exam) is usually one of the first indicators of cervical cancer. An abnormal result from a pap smear will prompt doctors to perform other testing.
Doctors will ask for your medical history as well as family medical history. This is usually part of an annual or well-woman exam; the historical information provides insights into your overall health and relevant risk factors associated with cervical cancer.
There are three tests used to diagnose pre-cancer or cervical cancer: colposcopy, endocervical scraping, and cone biopsies.
- Colposcopy. In this test, the doctor will examine the cervix using a colposcope. The doctor inserts the speculum into the vagina and then the colposcope, which remains outside of the patient, magnifies the cervix and allows the doctor to examine it. A weak acidic solution may be added to improve visibility of affected areas. Biopsies may be done in potential areas of concern.
- Endocervical scraping. This test utilizes an instrument called a curette to scrape tissue from the inside of the endocervical canal, which is the area closest to the uterus. That tissue is then examined in a lab to determine if it is cancerous.
- Cone biopsy. This procedure involves the doctor removing tissue in the shape of a cone, with the widest area beginning in the outer part of the cervix leading to a point in the endocervical canal. Beyond biopsy, this treatment might be used to remove any pre-cancer or treat early-stage cancers.
In patients where cervical cancer has progressed into large tumors, cystoscopy and proctoscopy procedures may be used.
- Cytoscopy. Cytoscopy is an examination of the bladder involving insertion of a thin tube with a camera and light via the urethra. This allows doctors to see if the cancer has spread to that area and enables biopsies.
- Proctoscopy. Similar to the cystoscopy, this thin tube enables doctors to check if the cancer has spread to the rectum.
Additional imaging may be required if there is concern that the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. These can include an x-ray, an MRI, CT scans, or PET scans.
Treatment of Cervical Cancer
There are a few treatment options for cervical cancer, but the chosen treatment depends on the severity of the cancer. Those treatments include:
- Radiation therapy
- Targeted therapy
Surgery or radiation may be combined with chemotherapy to treat early stages of cervical cancer. A combination of radiation and chemotherapy can be used in later stages, but for advanced stages, only chemotherapy is used.
Targeted therapy utilizes a drug to inhibit the growth of blood vessels associated with cancerous tumors. It can be used in combination with chemo, or it could eventually be the only treatment if it proves effective.
If you would like to learn more about cervical cancer and have concerns, contact your neighborhood Texas Health Care Obstetrics & Gynecology clinic in DFW.