Cervical Cancer - A Preventable Disease

Published January 1, 2022

photograph of a pap test

What is cervical cancer?

There are five main types of cancer that affect a woman’s reproductive organs: cervical, ovarian, uterine, vaginal, and vulvar — known collectively as gynecologic cancers. Cervical cancer occurs in the lower, narrow end of the uterus known as the cervix, which connects the vagina to the upper part of the uterus.

Around 13,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, according to the American Cancer Society. It used to be the leading cause of cancer-related death for American women, but thanks to developments in screening procedures in the last several decades, both incidence rates and death rates of cervical cancer dropped by around 50% from the mid-1970s to the mid-2000s.

It’s now the easiest gynecologic cancer to prevent with regular tests and follow-ups, or by getting vaccinated. It’s also highly curable when found and treated early.

What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?

Even in early stages, there are some physical symptoms associated with cervical cancer that become more severe as the cancer progresses. Some possible symptoms include:

  • Blood spots or light bleeding between or following periods (ok to omit blood spots)
  • Menstrual bleeding that is longer and heavier than usual
  • Bleeding after intercourse, douching, or a pelvic examination
  • Increased vaginal discharge
  • Pain during sexual intercourse
  • Bleeding after menopause
  • Unexplained, persistent pelvic and/or back pain

Can cervical cancer be prevented?

Cervical cancer is the only gynecologic cancer that can be prevented through screening or vaccination. Screening is done with one simple procedure that can either help prevent cervical cancer or find it early enough to treat it successfully.

A Pap test (or Pap smear) tests for the presence of precancerous or cancerous cells on the cervix. During the routine procedure, cells from the cervix are gently scraped away and examined for abnormal growth. This method can be used to detect cervical cancer early — sometimes before it starts.

One of the most important actions patients can take to prevent cervical cancer is to get vaccinated for HPV. The vaccine was first used in the U.S. in 2006, and it prevents the HPV strains most likely to cause genital warts and cervical cancer is recommended for boys and girls. Since the vaccine was first used in 2006, both HPV infections and cervical precancers have dropped dramatically.

Who is most at risk for developing cervical cancer?

While it’s impossible to know for sure if you’ll develop any type of cancer, there are several risk factors that increase a patient’s risk of developing cervical cancer.

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection: The most important risk factor for cervical cancer is HPV, the most common sexually transmitted infection. Almost 99% of cervical cancer cases are linked to HPV infections.
  • Immune system deficiency: People with weaker immune systems have a higher risk of developing cervical cancer.
  • Age: Cervical cancer is most frequently diagnosed in women between the ages of 35 and 44, with the average age at diagnosis being 50.
  • Herpes: Women who have genital herpes have a higher risk of developing cervical cancer.
  • Smoking tobacco: Women who smoke are about twice as likely to develop cervical cancer as women who do not smoke.
  • Socioeconomic factors: Cervical cancer is more common among groups of women who are less likely to have access to screening for cervical cancer, such as BIPOC women or women from low-income households.
  • Exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES): Women whose mothers were given this drug during pregnancy to prevent miscarriage (from about 1940 to 1970) have an increased risk of developing a rare type of cervical cancer.

Talk about your risk factors with your care team to help you make more informed lifestyle and health care choices.

What are treatment options for cervical cancer?

Thanks to early detection measures, cervical cancer is often caught when it’s still treatable. Common types of treatments for cervical cancer include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted drug therapy, and immunotherapy.

For the earlier stage cervical cancer, either surgery or radiation combined with chemotherapy may be used. For later stages, radiation combined with chemotherapy is usually the main treatment. Advanced cervical cancer is typically treated with chemotherapy.

It's important to discuss all of your treatment options, including goals and possible side effects, with your care team to help make the decisions that best fit your needs.

Let’s stay cancer-free.‍

If you have symptoms of cervical cancer or questions about your risk level, consult your care team today through the Firefly app.

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