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What you need to know about cervical cancer
Cervical cancer was once the most common cause of cancer death for American women. But with more Pap screening, the survival rate has increased dramatically. That’s because a Pap test can find changes in the cervix before cancer develops — and find cancers early when they are easier to treat.
Nearly all cervical cancer is caused by strains of human papillomavirus (HPV). Most cervical cancers develop between ages 35 to 44. More than 15 percent are found in women who are 65 or older, but rarely are those cases in women who have been getting regular screenings.
Symptoms of cervical cancer
Symptoms of cervical cancer are rarely alarming and may be overlooked. Symptoms don’t often start until the cancer cells grow and invade the deepest parts of the cervix and potentially other pelvic organs. That’s why regular cervical screenings are important in order to find precancer and cancer early.
Symptoms are often like other conditions that are not cancer, including:
- Vaginal discharge. You may have a watery, bloody, or unusual discharge. There may be an odor.
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding. You may have bleeding or spotting between your periods or after sex. Blood flow during your period may be heavier and last longer than usual. Or you may have bleeding after menopause.
- Pain. You may have pain during sex or pain in the pelvic area.
Many of these symptoms may be caused by other health problems. Still, it's important to see a healthcare provider if you have these symptoms. Only a healthcare provider can tell if you have cancer.
Screening for cervical cancer
- Pap test. Regular Pap tests can show changes in cells of the cervix before they become cancer. These are called pre-cancers. They can also find cervical cancer in its early stages, when it's small, hasn't spread, and is easier to treat.
- HPV test. This test is used to find signs of human papillomavirus (HPV) infection in the cells of the cervix. Certain types of HPV are linked to cervical cancer. The HPV test is done along with the Pap test for cervical cancer screening in certain age groups. A negative HPV test is linked to a low risk for cervical cancer. The HPV vaccine can help protect women from most cervical cancers.
- Pelvic exam. This exam is often done along with Pap and HPV tests. It can also help find some cancers of the uterus and other parts of the female reproductive system.
Understanding your cervical cancer diagnosis
If you have been diagnosed with cervical cancer, it can feel scary and you may have many questions. At this point, you’ve likely had a physical exam and reviewed your health history with your provider. Following a diagnosis of cervical cancer, you may have more tests to help your doctor understand your cancer stage.
Cancer staging includes identifying where the cancer is located, if or where it has spread, and if it is affecting other parts of your body. Knowing the stage allows your doctor to develop your personalized treatment plan.
Some tests your doctor may now recommend include:
- Colposcopy: This is a procedure where the doctor can get a closer view of your cervix with a lighted magnifying tool called a colposcope. It can help find any abnormal areas.
- Cervical biopsy: There are several different types, including colposcopic biopsy, endocervical curettage (endocervical scraping) and cone biopsy.
- CT scan, MRI or positron emission tomography (PET): These imaging technologies look inside the body.
- Pelvic exam under anesthesia: This includes cystoscopy (looking inside the urethra and bladder) and proctoscopy (looking inside the anal cavity, rectum and lower colon).
Cervical cancer can be treated. Treatment can be used to cure or control the cancer and keep it from spreading. It can also help ease symptoms or problems the cancer is causing. There are several ways to treat cervical cancer depending on the type and location of the tumor. Options may include surgery, chemotherapy, targeted therapy or radiation. Women often receive a combination of treatments. Learn more about your cervical cancer treatment options.
Our team features some of the regions most recognized women's cancer experts. Learn more about our gynecologic cancer specialists.
Talk to your doctor to see if a clinical trial (research study) may be right for you.
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