Cervical Cancer Causes and How to Know if You Have it
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How Do You Know If You Have Cervical Cancer?

Overview

The cervix is the area of a female’s body between her vagina and uterus. When cells in the cervix become abnormal and multiply rapidly, cervical cancer can develop. Cervical cancer can be life-threatening if it goes undetected or untreated.

A specific type of virus called human papilloma virus (HPV) causes almost all of the cases of cervical cancer. Your doctor can screen for this virus and precancerous cells, and they can suggest treatments that can prevent cancer from occurring.

What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer doesn’t usually cause symptoms until it’s in advanced stages. Also, women may think the symptoms are related to something else, such as their menstrual cycle, a yeast infection, or a urinary tract infection.

Examples of symptoms associated with cervical cancer include:

  • abnormal bleeding, such as bleeding between menstrual periods, after sex, after a pelvic exam, or after menopause
  • discharge that’s unusual in amount, color, consistency, or smell
  • having to go to urinate more frequently
  • pelvic pain
  • painful urination

All women should have cervical screen according to national guidelines. Also, if you experience these symptoms, talk to your doctor about screening for cervical cancer.

How do you get cervical cancer?

HPV causes a majority of cervical cancers. Certain strains of the virus cause normal cervical cells to become abnormal. Over the course of years or even decades, these calls can become cancerous.

Women who were exposed to a medicine called diethylstilbestrol (DES) while their mothers were pregnant are also at risk for cervical cancer. This medicine is a type of estrogen that doctors thought could prevent miscarriage. However, DES has been linked with causing abnormal cells in the cervix and vagina. The medication has been off the market in the United States since the 1970s. You can talk to your mother to determine if she may have taken the medication. A test to determine if you were exposed to DES isn’t available.

What is HPV?

HPV is associated with causing cervical cancers as well as genital warts in most instances. HPV is sexually transmitted. You can get it from anal, oral, or vaginal sex. According to the National Cervical Cancer Coalition, HPV causes 99 percent of cervical cancers.

More than 200 types of HPV exist, and not all of them cause cervical cancer. Doctors categorize HPV into two types.

According to the National Cancer Institute, HPV types 6 and 11 cause 90 percent of all genital warts. These HPV types aren’t associated with causing cancer and are considered low risk. HPV types 16 and 18 are high-risk types. They cause 70 percent of cervical cancers. These HPV types can also cause:

  • anal cancer
  • oropharyngeal cancer
  • vaginal cancer
  • vulvar cancer

HPV infections are the most commonly sexually transmitted infections in the United States. Most women with HPV will not get cervical cancer. The virus often resolves on its own in two years or less without any treatments. However, some people may continue to be infected long after exposure.

HPV and early cervical cancer don’t always cause symptoms. However, your doctor will check for the presence of abnormal cells in the cervix through a Pap smear at your annual exam. You can also be tested for the HPV virus during this exam.

How is cervical cancer diagnosed?

Doctors can diagnose the presence of abnormal and potentially cancerous cells through a Pap test. This involves swabbing your cervix with a device that’s similar to a cotton swab. They send this swab to a laboratory to be examined for precancerous or cancerous cells.

The American Cancer Society recommends women begin cervical cancer screenings by getting a Pap test at age 21. You should get this test at least every three years until you turn 30. When you’re 30, you should continue to have a Pap test every three years and begin HPV testing. You should get HPV testing every five years if the first test is negative.

The HPV test is very similar to a Pap test. Your doctor collects cells from the cervix in the same manner. Laboratory workers will test the cells for the presence of genetic material associated with HPV. This includes DNA or RNA of known HPV strands.

Even if you’ve had the vaccine to protect against HPV, you should still get cervical cancer screenings as the American Cancer Society recommends.

Women should talk to their doctors about the timing of Pap tests. Circumstances exist when you should be tested more often. These include women who have a suppressed immune system due to:

  • HIV
  • long-term steroid use
  • an organ transplant

Your doctor may also recommend that you get a screening more frequently based on your circumstances.

What is the outlook?

When it’s detected in its earliest stages, cervical cancer is considered one of the most treatable cancer types. According to the American Cancer Society, deaths from cervical cancer have declined by 50 percent in the past 30 years. Getting regular Pap tests to check for precancerous cells is thought to be one of the most important and effective means of prevention. Getting vaccinated against HPV and undergoing regular Pap test screenings can help you reduce your risk for cervical cancer.

How can you prevent HPV and cervical cancer?

You can lessen your cervical cancer risk by reducing the likelihood you’ll get HPV. If you’re between the ages of 9 and 26, you can get the HPV vaccine. While there are different kinds of HPV vaccines on the market, they all protect against types 16 and 18, which are the two most cancer-causing types. Some vaccines provide immunity against even more HPV types. It’s ideal to get this vaccine before becoming sexually active.

Other ways to help prevent cervical cancer include the following:

  • Get routine Pap tests. Talk to your doctor about the recommended frequency of Pap tests based on your age and medical conditions.
  • Practice safe sex. Have your partner wear a condom each time you have sex.
  • Don’t smoke. Women who smoke are at greater risk for cervical cancers. 

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