Each year more than 12,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with cervical cancer—cancer that starts in the cervix, the narrow opening between the uterus and the vagina. In fact, cervical cancer is the second most common type of cancer among women worldwide. All women are at risk for cervical cancer, but it occurs most often in women over age thirty. Fortunately, cervical cancer is highly treatable when found early.
Screening tests offer the best chance to find cervical cancer early. Screenings can also detect abnormal cervical cell changes (precancerous), so they can be treated before they turn into cancer. The most proactive thing you can do to help prevent cervical cancer is to get screened regularly. The American Cancer Society recommends that all women start testing at age twenty-one and continue until age sixty-five. Deaths from cervical cancer in the United States continue to decline by approximately 2 percent a year primarily because of the widespread use of the Pap test, according to the National Cervical Cancer Coalition.
What Causes Cervical Cancer?
The human papillomavirus (HPV) is found in about 99 percent of cervical cancers. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. By age fifty, approximately 80 percent of women have been infected with HPV. But HPV is not the only cause of cervical cancer. Most women with HPV do not develop cervical cancer, and certain other risk factors, like smoking and HIV infection, influence which women exposed to HPV are more likely to develop cervical cancer.
Symptoms of Cervical Cancer
Women with early cervical cancers and precancers usually have no symptoms, which is why screenings are so important. Symptoms often do not begin until a precancer becomes a true invasive cancer and grows into nearby tissue. The most common symptoms are:
Abnormal vaginal bleeding, such as bleeding after vaginal intercourse; bleeding after menopause; bleeding and spotting between periods; and having longer or heavier than usual periods. Bleeding after douching, or after a pelvic exam, is a common symptom of cervical cancer but not precancer.
Unusual discharge from the vagina. The discharge may contain some blood and may occur between periods or after menopause.
Pain during vaginal intercourse.
Increased urinary frequency.
Pain during urination.
Conditions other than cervical cancer can cause these symptoms. If you have any signs or concerns, make an appointment with your health provider immediately.
How to Prevent Cervical Cancer?
In the United States, the cervical cancer death rate has declined by more than 50 percent over the last thirty years. This is likely due to the effectiveness of Pap test screening. Two tests can help prevent cervical cancer or find it early:
The Pap test (or Pap smear) looks for precancers, cell changes in the cervix that might become cervical cancer if they are not treated appropriately. The Pap test is recommended for women between the ages of twenty-one and sixty-five and can be done in a doctor’s office or clinic.
The HPV test looks for the virus that can cause these cell changes. An HPV vaccine is also available for preteens and young men and women.
If you’re concerned about cervical cancer, HPV, or other health issues, schedule an appointment with your primary care physician or gynecologist.