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General

Understanding Cervical Health

The cervix is a canal in the lower part of the uterus. During pregnancy, the cervix helps hold the fetus inside the uterus until delivery when it flattens and opens, allowing the baby to move into the birth canal. The cervix also allows menstrual blood to leave the body.

Routine screenings, such as a Pap test, can help find changes in cervical cells, including cervical cancer. Other problems with the cervix include:

  • Inflammation of the cervix, called ‘Cervicitis’, which is usually from an infection.
  • Abnormal growths on the cervix such as polyps and cysts
  • Early widening of the cervix’s opening during pregnancy, referred to as cervical incompetence

Cervical Cancer

Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is associated with almost all cases of cervical cancer because it disrupts cervical cell structure by causing irritation and inflammation, leading to abnormal growth.

HPV is transmitted through intimate and sexual contact. Though most HPV goes away on its own, persistent infection can cause ‘Cervical Intraepithelial Neoplasia’ (CIN), an abnormal change in cervical cells. CIN increases the risk of cervical cancer. It usually resolves on its own, but may need to be surgically removed. Not all HPV infections will turn into cervical cancer, and cervical cancer can develop without the presence of HPV.

Other main risk factors for cervical cancer include:

Age – The risk of developing cervical cancer increases after age 25. Pre-cancerous changes can be diagnosed in the teens and early 20s. The risk of developing cervical cancer stays about the same after age 40, but the disease is more harmful in older women.

Lack of Pap Tests - A Pap test can detect early abnormal cell growth, allowing for treatment before cancer develops. Women who have never had a Pap test, or who have not had one for several years, have an increased risk of developing cervical cancer.

Sexual History – There is an increased risk of cervical cancer in women who had sexual intercourse at an early age, who have had many sexual partners, or who have a partner who has had many sexual partners. A history of sexually transmitted infections, such as chlamydia, can also increase the risk of cervical cancer.

Smoking - Tobacco by-products have been found in the cervical mucus of women who smoke. Generally, women who smoke double their risk of cervical cancer.

Weakened Immune System - Infections are more likely in people with weakened immune systems, and it is harder for their bodies to fight off infection. This can cause an HPV infection to persist, increasing the risk of cervical cell damage and cancer.

Symptoms

Abnormal bleeding is the most common symptom of cervical cancer. Other early symptoms include: unusual vaginal discharge, with or without blood, and pain during sex.

Later stages of cervical cancer may cause:

  • Pelvic pain or a sensation of a mass
  • Abdominal or back pain caused by pressure on nearby nerves
  • Obstructive urinary tract or rectal problems
  • Decreased appetite and unintended weight loss
  • Intense fatigue, abnormally low energy
  • Swelling in the legs, which may be caused by an obstruction in the veins or lymphatic system
  • Bone pain

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, contact your physician as soon as possible.

Some of the information in this article can be attributed to EBSCO Information Services.