Cervical cancer begins in the cervix, which connects the vagina to the upper part of the uterus.
The cervix is lined with a thin layer of tissue full of cells. You get cervical cancer when the cells that line the cervix grow out of control. In advanced stages, abnormal cells spread to other nearby organs and eventually form a tumor.
At one time, cervical cancer was among the most common causes of cancer death for American women. But with increased cervical cancer screening, the death rate has declined significantly.
When it comes to cervical cancer, prevention, early detection and cancer treatment are key. That's why women need to educate themselves and their loved ones about cervical health.
How do you get cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV).
HPV is spread through intimate skin-to-skin or sexual contact with a partner who has HPV. While infection is very common, few infections lead to cervical cancer.
Usually, your body can fight off an HPV infection. However, some infections will eventually lead to cancer, including cancer in the cervix.
Read More: Wondering about your risk for developing cervical cancer? Use our Cervical Cancer Risk Assessment tool to find out.
What are signs of cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer takes several years to develop. Women in early stages of the disease often do not experience symptoms. With time, the cancer will become larger and spread to nearby tissue. This is when many women will begin experiencing symptoms, including:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding
- Pain during sexual intercourse
- Pain in the pelvic area
- Unusual vaginal discharge (sometimes containing blood, even if you are not on your period or have already gone through menopause)
How do doctors detect cervical cancer?
Routine screening is the best way to find cervical cancer.
A routine Pap test (also called a Pap smear) helps detect abnormal cancer cell changes that can turn into cervical cancer. A Pap test also identifies precancerous cells on the cervix. Healthcare officials previously recommended that women get a Pap test every year, but annual testing is no longer considered necessary for many women.
According to the American Cancer Society, changes in cervical cells that lead to cancer occur over a 10- to 20-year period. Testing for HPV is often done in conjunction with Pap testing. Ask your doctor how often you should get a Pap test and/or HPV test.
How can you reduce your risk for cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is preventable.
Vaccines have been available since 2006 that help protect you from HPV infection and HPV-related cancers, including cervical cancer. Currently, the only HPV vaccine available in the U.S. is Gardasil-9, which protects against nine strains of HPV.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the HPV vaccine for all children between the ages 11 to 12 years old, though the vaccine may be given to adults up to 45 years old. It is most effective before any sexual activity has occurred but is still advised if sexual activity has begun or if an abnormal Pap test has occurred.
In addition to getting the HPV vaccine, there are other actions you can take to reduce the risk of cervical cancer:
- Avoid tobacco smoke
- Limit your number of sexual partners
- Use condoms during sex to prevent HPV infection
If you have questions about cervical cancer prevention or screening, talk with your healthcare provider.
If you need a gynecologist, find one near you by calling Tanner Health System's 24-hour physician referral line at 770-214-CARE (2273) or using our Find a Provider search feature.
Tanner Healthcare for Women is a Tanner Medical Group practice located in Carrollton, Georgia. For more information, visit tannerhealthcareforwomen.org.