Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the cervix. The cervix is the lowest part of the uterus that opens at the top of the vagina. Cervical cancers typically begin in the cells that line the cervix. They don’t automatically turn into cancer, but the normal cells begin to slowly developing changes which might be pre-cancerous and further changes to the cells can gradually lead to cervical cancer. The pre-cancerous changes that occur with the cells in the cervical lining include dysplasia, cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN) and squamous intraepithelial lesion (SIL). The changes are often found during an annual pap smear as abnormal cells, which are run through further tests to determine if cancer is found.
Causes of Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer is the third most common type of cancer with women though it is less likely in the United States due to annual pap smears which can find abnormal cells early. Cervical cancer begins with the cells on the lining surface of the cervix which might be either from squamous cells or columnar cells. Most cervical cancer cases are from squamous cells. Cervical cancer develops very slowly which is why catching it during an annual exam is often enough for a success treatment. The pre-cancerous stage is called dysplasia which is what pap smears usually detect and are able to treat before it advanced to full-blown cervical cancer. It can actually take years for it to become cervical cancer. Most types of cervical cancers are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV) which is spread during sexual intercourse. Therefore, risk factors include not having a HPV vaccine, failing to get annual pap smears, unprotected sexual intercourse and a weakened immune system.
Symptoms of Cervical Cancer
The earliest stages of cervical cancer don’t show any symptoms. As it progresses you may notice vaginal bleeding that seems abnormal such as after intercourse or after menopause, foul-smelling or pink or brown vaginal discharge and periods that are longer and heavier than usual. If cervical cancer isn’t treated, it can spread to other organs including the intestines, bladder, lungs and liver. Symptoms of advanced cervical cancer include bone pain or fractures, back pain, fatigue, urine leakage from the vagina, leg pain, loss of appetite, pelvic pain, weight loss and a swollen leg.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Cervical cancer is not something a physician can see, therefore special tests are required. These include pap smears, cone biopsy, colposcopy, chest x-ray, CT scan of the pelvis, cystoscopy, MRI of the pelvis and an Intravenous pyelogram. The treatment path will depend on the stage of the cervical cancer, the shape and size of the tumors, age, health status, and whether or not she wants to have children in the future. Treatments include surgery to remove the cervical tumors or cancerous cells from the cervix or a possible hysterectomy if the cancer has spread.