Cervical cancer is a form of cancer that starts in a woman’s cervix – a tube-shaped organ that connects the uterus to the vagina, located in the lower portion of the uterus. In cervical cancer, malignant cancer cells begin forming on the surface of the cervix.
There are two parts in the cervix, with both made up of different cells. The outer portion of the cervix is called ‘ectocervix’ and is made up of squamous cells, while the ‘endocervix’, which is the opening of the cervical canal, is made up of columnar cells. The portion of the cervix where these two cells meet is known as the ‘transformational zone’, the location where most cervical cancer cells begin forming.
Cervical cancer is most often diagnosed between the age of 35 and 44. Since it usually develops slowly as a condition called ‘dysplasia’, it can be detected by a Pap smear test and treated successfully.
Cervical cancer can be classified into two main types – Squamous Cell Carcinomas and Adenocarcinomas.
The cervical cancer stage ranges from stages I (1) to IV (4). Typically, lower stage numbers indicate a lesser spreading of cancer. Higher numbers like stage IV indicate a more advanced cancer.
Most women with cervical cancer do not experience any symptoms in the early stages. However, it can be detected with regular tests and check-ups. Some signs and symptoms of cervical cancer include:
Once this cancer spreads, it can lead to acute symptoms such as kidney failure, swelling in the legs, bone pain, lack of appetite, weight loss, pelvic pain, fatigue, and pain while urinating.
Following are some factors that increase your risk of cervical cancer:
Almost 99% of cervical cancer cases are attributed to Human Papillomavirus (HPV), a virus transmitted through sexual contact or skin-to-skin contact. There are over a hundred different strains of HPV, making it the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI). Though not all types of HPV cause health problems, certain high-risk types can lead to the formation of genital warts and cancers in the cervix, mouth, anus, throat, vagina, and vulva. Typically, the body is capable of fighting the HPV infection. However, sometimes the body fails to do so, and the disease becomes chronic, especially when the HPV is a high-risk type, leading to cervical cancer.
The risk of cervical cancer can increase depending on a woman’s sexual habits, such as having multiple sexual partners, having sex at a young age, having sex with a partner who has multiple sexual partners, or developing an HPV infection.
The body’s inability to defend itself from infections and diseases, including an HPV infection, may increase cervical cancer risk.
According to some research studies, the long-term usage of oral contraceptives increases the risk of cervical cancer. Instead of prolonged use of birth control pills, other contraceptive methods like condoms, diaphragms, vaginal rings, IUDs, etc., can be used.
Women whose mothers were given (DES) during pregnancy to avoid miscarriage have a higher risk of developing a rare kind of cervical or vaginal cancer. Such women should get a yearly pelvic examination, including a cervical Pap test and a 4-quadrant Pap test, where cell samples from all sides of the vagina are analyzed to detect for signs of cancer.
Cervical cancer risk increases in women between late teens and mid-30s. Women aged over 30 should have regular cervical cancer screenings due to their increased risk of getting the condition. Usually, women aged over 65 who have not been diagnosed with cervical cancer or pre-cancer can stop getting cervical cancer screenings if they have had three negative tests in the last decade.
The best way to prevent cervical cancer is to detect and treat pre-cancers by getting tested regularly and getting an HPV vaccine. Tests like an HPV test and a Pap test can be useful when looking for signs of an infection or cancerous cells.
An HPV vaccine can prevent young adults from getting certain HPV infections linked to cancer and genital/anal warts. According to the American Cancer Society, children between the age of 9 and 12, and young adults aged 13 to 26, should get the vaccine before they get exposed to HPV through sexual activity.
Another way to prevent the risk of cervical cancer is by limiting the exposure to HPV and using condoms for protection against STIs, including HPV. Exposure to HPV can be lowered by restricting the number of sexual partners and avoiding sex with people who have had multiple sexual partners.
Quitting smoking can reduce the risk of cervical cancer. Smoking doubles the risk of cervical cancer in women. Researchers believe that tobacco by-products found in the cervical mucus of female smokers can harm the DNA of cervix cells and may cause cervical cancer.
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