Cervical cancer is a malignancy that develops in the lining of the cervix. It can take many years for it to develop, but during this development stage, the cell structure of the lining wall will display abnormal changes. These abnormal changes occur internally in the body and do not present any outward symptoms compared to other forms of cancer
Cervical cancer is the second most prevalent cancer and the main cause of cancer deaths in women after breast cancer. The main cause of the disease is the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV), meaning that this is a preventable form of cancer.
How to detect cervical cancer
Pap smear screening can detect potentially precancerous changes. Therefore regular tests are important and are recommended. The introduction of Pap smears as screening tools about 50 years ago has significantly reduced the number of deaths due to this type of cancer.
While it may not be possible to pinpoint with accuracy the causes of cervical cancer, the following are possible risk factors:
- Having several sexual partners
- Consuming oral contraceptives (the Pill)
- Smoking: Women smokers are more than 10 times likely to get cervical cancer than women who do not smoke
- A weak immune system
Preventing the disease in the first place is crucial. There are now vaccines available that target several strains of HPV to prevent the infection. Once diagnosed, treatment for cervical cancer differs according to stage, age and tumor size. The options include surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy or a combination of all three.
A Pap smear involves the removal of tissue cells from the cervix. These tissues are then examined under the microscope for changes that might determine cancer or precancerous states. Since a Pap smear can identify both cancerous as well as precancerous states of cervical cells, it is important for women who are sexually active to do a Pap smear annually.
The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends a first Pap test within three years of having sexual activity or by age 21, followed by a Pap test every 1-2 years after that. An annual Pap test is also recommended if you have risk factors for cervical cancer.