What is Cervical Cancer?

19 Jan 2023
Stefano Mirabello
Stefano Mirabello
Medical Writer
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Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that occurs in the cells of the cervix, which is the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. While cervical cancer is not as common as other types of cancers, it can still be quite serious and even life-threatening if it is not detected and treated early. Cervical cancer mainly affects women between the ages of 30 and 55 however, anyone with a cervix including trans men and nonbinary people can be at risk. Let’s explore what you need to know about cervical cancer.

Why is the cervix important?

The cervix is an essential part of the female reproductive system and plays a critical role in fertility, pregnancy and childbirth. Located at the lower end of the uterus, the cervix connects the upper vagina with the chamber that holds the baby during pregnancy. During menstrual cycles, the cervical mucus helps protect against infection and provides sustenance for sperm needed to fertilize eggs. Likewise during pregnancy, it serves to protect both mother and baby while allowing nutrients to pass through. Finally, but most importantly, during labour and delivery, it becomes very thin in order to allow passage of a baby through it. Without such an important anatomical structure as the cervix, successful conception and birth would be impossible.

What is cervical cancer and what does cervical cancer look like?

Cells present on the surface of the cervix are typically made up of squamous cells and glandular cells. If cell changes occur, types of cervical cancer can develop such as squamous cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma, or adenosquamous carcinoma. With these types of cervical cancer, there will be further changes in the shape and appearance of the cells that make up the cervix. For example, normal healthy adult squamous cells have an oval nucleus and abundant cytoplasm while abnormal ones may have a larger nucleus and nuclear irregularity. These types of cell changes can often be detected through routine Pap tests so that doctors prescribe timely treatments for any given diagnosis.

What causes cervical cancer?

Most cases of cancer of the cervix are caused by a virus called Human Papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a sexually transmitted infection (STI), so people who engage in unprotected sex are at an increased risk of developing cervical cancer. Women are more likely than men to contract HPV because they have a larger surface area in contact with their partners during intercourse.

Risk factors for cervical cancer

Factors that can put a person at risk for developing cervical cancer include:

  • Being infected with certain strains of HPV
  • Smoking cigarettes
  • Having multiple sexual partners
  • Multiple pregnancies
  • Having unprotected sex
  • Using hormonal contraceptives for long periods.
  • Poor nutrition and lifestyle
  • A family history of cervical cancer
  • A weakened immune system due to illness or medication,

It’s important to make sure you have regular preventative checkups with your doctor to help reduce your risk of cervical cancer. Your doctor may offer additional screening tests if they believe it’s necessary due to any potential risk factors you have. Being aware of your health risks and taking steps to lower them can help keep you healthy and safe in the long run.

What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?

Depending on the type and severity of cervical cancer, it is possible to have the disease without feeling or noticing any symptoms for quite some time. Early stages of cervical cancer generally cause no warning signs, allowing tumors to grow silently in the cervix. In fact, if left untreated, some types of cervical cancer can spread to other parts of the body and worsen over a course of several years before they are detected.

However, if you are experiencing any concerning symptoms such as unusual vaginal bleeding or vaginal discharge, pelvic pain, pain during sexual intercourse, or changes in bladder habits – talk to your healthcare provider right away. Regular screenings and check-ups by your provider can ensure that if any cervical cells begin to change unexpectedly in a way that could indicate cervical cancer it will be caught early before it progresses further.

How long can you have cervical cancer without knowing?

Cervical cancer can be difficult to detect in the early stages, as symptoms may not typically appear until the cancer has progressed significantly. In some cases, patients may live with abnormalities in their cervical cells for years without realizing it. If a woman’s cervical cells are abnormal for a long period of time, her risk of developing cervical cancer increases; therefore, it is important for women to get regular Pap smears or HPV tests so that any pre-cancerous changes can be identified and treated promptly to reduce the risk of the disease progressing. Early detection is key when it comes to treating cervical changes and preventing them from becoming cancerous.

Cervical cancer screening tests

Regular screening tests can help to detect precancer changes in the cervix before they become cancerous, making them an important part of good health for women.

PAP test

A PAP test or PAP smear (or NHS Cervical Screening Test) is a simple procedure that checks for changes in the cells of a woman’s cervix. It can help detect whether these cervical cells have become abnormal, which can indicate an increased risk of cervical cancer. Over time, if not destroyed or removed at an early stage, the abnormal cells may become cancer cells and start to grow and spread more deeply into the cervix and to surrounding areas.

During the test, a small sample of cells is taken from your cervix and examined under a microscope. The NHS recommends that all women aged 25 to 64 should have regular PAP tests every 5 years, as this screening programme has been proven to save lives through early detection of cervical cancer. You may be recalled more often depending on your test results.

HPV test

For those patients over 30 years old, who may have been exposed to the human papillomavirus (HPV), your doctor may suggest an HPV test instead of or in addition to a Pap test. This type of testing looks specifically for signs of HPV infection, which is linked to a highrisk of cervical cancer development.

HPV vaccine

HPV vaccination is part of the National Health Service (NHS) vaccination program, aimed at protecting young people from infection by the human papillomavirus (HPV). Vaccines are available for girls and boys aged 12-13, and can also be given up to the age of 25. The vaccine does not protect against every type of HPV virus; however, it covers nine types which cause over 90% of cervical cancers and a large proportion of genital warts.

Diagnosis

An abnormal Pap test may suggest further tests, such as sampling cells from the cervix using thin brushes or spatula, or a colposcopy to look at the cervix more closely. If abnormalities are found and believed to be cancerous, then additional testing including a biopsy may be recommended. Although cervical cancer is not always curable, early diagnosis and treatment can greatly reduce the risk of severe disability and death from this disease. Caring for yourself by having regular examinations and following your doctor’s advice can help you feel better about your health and reduce the fear of developing cervical cancer.

Is cervical cancer treatable?

Cervical cancer is a serious and life-threatening condition, yet it is highly treatable when caught at an early stage. There are many different treatment options available. Treating cervical cancer depends on many factors, including the stage of the disease. Early cervical cancer and advanced cervical cancer will be treated differently. Your doctor will work with an oncologist to discuss a treatment plan that’s best for you.

This may involve surgery, like a hysterectomy (removal of the uterus), chemotherapy or radiation therapy (radiotherapy) or anticancer drugs. During this conversation, your doctor also will discuss any potential side effects, such as menopause if you’re pre-menopausal. Regular follow-up appointments are recommended after treatment to ensure that your body is continuing to respond well and that there are no recurrences. Depending on their specialty, your doctor may have a team approach committed to treating cervical cancer holistically.

You must take time to research all available options of cervical cancer treatment before making any decisions about your care. Make sure all your questions are answered by a qualified healthcare professional before beginning any treatments.

Help and support

If you think you may be at risk of developing cervical cancer, it’s important to speak to a healthcare professional. Getting regular cancer screenings and Pap tests is one of the best ways to protect yourself from cervical cancer.

Also, if you are diagnosed with cervical cancer, know that you’re not alone. There are many organisations and support groups such as Cancer Research UK available for those facing this challenge. Many offer counseling services as well as information on living with and managing the disease. We encourage anyone facing a diagnosis or at-risk of getting cervical cancer to not only speak to their doctor for medical advice, but also lean on the resources these support organisations provide to give back your sense of self-control over your journey.

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