Cervical cancer is the third most common form of cancer among women, behind breast and ovarian cancers. It is a common misconception that cervical cancer is more deadly than other types, but the truth is that the symptoms of cervical cancer often go undetected until it is in advanced stages. Any cancer detected in later stages becomes more difficult to treat.
Make yourself aware of cervical cancer symptoms so you can readily identify them and get treated right away.
What Is Cervical Cancer?
Before you can understand cervical cancer, you must understand the anatomy of the female reproductive system. The cervix is in located in the lower portion of the uterus that opens to the vagina. The cervix plays a crucial role in a womanâ€™s reproductive system; helping menstrual blood flow into the vagina, producing the mucus that helps sperm move into the uterus for pregnancy and it tightens to keep the fetus inside the uterus during pregnancy. When a woman gives birth the cervix expands to allow an easy passage through the vagina.
Because of its location the symptoms of cervical cancer can often go undetected or are often seen as symptoms of other illnesses or diseases.
This picture illustrates the female reproductive system so you can understand the importance of an early diagnosis to your ability to remain fertile in the future.
Cervical cancer occurs when there are abnormal cells growing on the cervix. Although these abnormalities donâ€™t always indicate the presence of cancer of the cervix, when they grow out of control that is a sign that those cells are likely cancerous.
Early detection of cervical cancer often occurs when pre-cancerous cells are observed during yearly cervical exams.
During the early stages of cervical cancer very few women actually present with symptoms, which again is why this type of cancer is difficult to detect early on. This is why it is so important that each woman is aware of her body and observe any subtle changes that occur. This will help you identify the symptoms of cervical cancer as early as possible. While some changes may not indicate the presence of cancer, some of the symptoms can lead to a cervical cancer diagnosis.
When cancer of the cervix progresses however, there will be some symptoms you should begin to notice. They include:
- Vaginal bleeding that occurs but is not associated with your period. This type of bleeding may occur after menopause, in between menstrual cycles or after sexual intercourse.
- Heavy vaginal bleeding during your period may be a symptom of advanced cervical cancer. Also if your period lasts longer than what is normal for you, this could be a symptom of cervical cancer.
- Pain during intercourse is not a definitive sign of cervical cancer however it is one symptom. This pain is caused when the cells are irritated because of the friction of sex. You may also experience this type of pain while trying to insert some forms of contraception such as vaginal rings and diaphragms.
- Vaginal discharge that has a strange odor or mixed with blood can be signs of cervical cancer. Of course dozens of vaginal infections present with discharge as well, you should always consult with your physician to confirm a diagnosis.
- Pelvic pain is another sign that you could have cervical cancer. This pain can spread to the back and legs and will worsen as the cancer progresses.
- Vomiting & nausea when accompanied by other above symptoms could be an indicator that you may have cancer cells growing in your cervix.
- Unexplained weight loss often occurs either because of a loss of appetite or the aforementioned vomiting and nausea. This weight loss will have nothing to do with weight loss efforts and be contribute to a general feeling of illness.
If you notice any of these symptoms you should make an appointment with your doctor to find out what exactly the problem is. For most women these signs and symptoms of cervical cancer may be nothing, but for a few women this will mean the difference between life and death.
Although we do know certain risk factors that contribute to cancer cells growing out of control within the cervix, it is not quite clear why some women develop cervical cancer while others do not. If you fall within one of the categories that increases your risk of cervical cancer, you will want to be extra observant of any unusual symptoms you experience.
The one thing that is known about the cause of cervical cancer is a virus known as the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is spread through sexual contact with someone who has the virus even though not all types of HPV cause cervical cancer. In fact one can be infected with HPV for quite a long time and not even be aware of it because no symptoms are present.
Regular pap smears or cervical exams can detect the presence of HPV even when no symptoms are present.
Other risk factors for cervical cancer are:
- Family or personal history of cervical cancer or other forms of cancer
- Genetic makeup
- Long term use of oral contraceptives – 5 years or more
- Giving birth to 3 or more children
- HIV or other illnesses that weaken your immune system
There are currently 3 methods used for cervical cancer treatments. Depending on the progression of your cancer your doctor may create a treatment plan that uses more than one of the following treatment methods:
Surgery is one option because it can remove the cancer cells partially or completely to prevent the cancer from spreading. In some instances surgery may kill the cancer cells and greatly improve your chances of survival. There are two types of surgery to treat cervical cancer:
- Simple Hysterectomy to remove the uterus is usually recommended for the early stages of cervical cancer. A simple hysterectomy involves removing the cancer, cervix and the uterus.
- Radical Hysterectomy may be needed, which involves removing the cervix, uterus and even part of the vagina and lymph nodes, if the cancer has progressed.
Both of these surgeries can cure the cancer and prevent the cancer from returning however it makes future childbirth impossible.
As you can see from the photo below, hysterectomies can help get rid of the cancer but due to the importance of the cervix it can also affect a womanâ€™s ability to bear children.
Radiation is used to target the cancer cells in the cervix and killing them with high energy x-rays. Your physician may recommend external and internal radiation to give you the best chance of killing all the cancer cells.
Chemotherapy is the third type of cervical cancer treatment and it involves using cancer killing drugs administered by pill or intravenously. Chemotherapy is a combination of drugs that kill cancer cells but have a variety of unpleasant side effects.
Depending on your age and stage of cancer you may also qualify for clinical trials that experiment with different treatment plans for cervical cancer. Talk to your doctors to determine if youâ€™re a candidate for alternative treatments.
As with most types of cancer an early diagnosis gives you the best prognosis. Regular pap smears provides women with the best prognosis as it provides the best chance to catch the cervical cancer before it progresses. The earlier cervical cancer is caught the best chance you have for survival.
Other factors play a role in cervical cancer prognosis including age, overall health and stage of cancer. The prognosis for cervical cancer by stage are as follows:
- Stage I = 99%
- Stage II = 70-75%
- Stage III = 50%
- Stage IV = 20%
As you can see, early detection and diagnosis provides women with the best chances to survive a cervical cancer treatment.
The surgical treatments for cervical cancer often accompany complications that make surgery a difficult decision for many women. This is particularly true of young women who have yet to start a family since the surgical treatments make it impossible for cervical cancer survivors to bear children. Without key reproductive organs such as the vagina, uterus or cervix, a woman will be unable to get pregnant or give birth to her own children.
Speak with your doctor before coming up with a treatment plan if you are concerned about future fertility, as this problem is best resolved preemptively.
There are things you can do to reduce your risk of cervical cancer. Taking proactive steps such as those below can reduce your risk greatly;
- Regular pap tests yearly or twice a year if you fall within the high risk populations
- Reduce your number of sex partners
- Use condoms during sex to reduce risk of HPV, which reduces incidences of cervical cancer
- Quit smoking or donâ€™t begin smoking
- Get an HPV vaccination (ask your doctor)
While there are many successful treatments for cervical cancer, prevention is always the best. Between HPV vaccinations, regular pap smears and limited sexual partners can help you avoid getting cervical cancer altogether.