Cervical cancer: What you need to know
While all women are at risk for cervical cancer, it occurs most often in women over 30. Cervical cancer occurs in younger women when cervical cells become abnormal and, over time, grow out of control. Larry Puls, MD, gynecologic oncologist, shared the latest information about cervical cancer.
What causes cervical cancer?
The main cause of cervical cancer is human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted infection. HPV infections cause 99% of cervical cancers. Some HPV infections will go away on their own, however, some persist and may develop into cancer. Once diagnosed with HPV, you are considered a carrier of the virus. You may not show symptoms, but it is possible you may shed the virus and spread it to others with whom you are sexually active.
What are some of the symptoms of cervical cancer?
The first signs of cervical cancer may be abnormal bleeding, spotting or watery discharge from the vagina. Menstrual bleeding may be heavier than usual, and bleeding may occur after sex. Signs of advanced cancer can include pelvic pain, problems urinating and swollen legs. If the cancer has spread to nearby organs or the lymph nodes, the tumors can affect how those organs work as well.
Is there a screening test for cervical cancer?
There are two screening tests that help prevent cervical cancer or find it early.
- A Pap test (or Pap smear) looks for cell changes on the cervix that might become cervical cancer if not treated appropriately.
- An HPV test looks for the virus (human papillomavirus) that can cause these cell changes to occur.
“It can take 15 to 20 years for changes in cervical cells to become cancer, though it can occur more rapidly. Cervical cancer screening may detect these changes before they become cancer. For this reason, screenings are incredibly important,” said Dr. Puls.
How often you have a cervical cancer screening and which tests are performed depend on your age and health history. Talk to your healthcare professional to see what is recommended for you.
- Women 21–29 are recommended to have a Pap test every 3 years, depending on risk factors. HPV testing is not generally recommended.
- Women 30–65 are recommended to have a Pap test and an HPV test (co-testing) every 5 years. You may have a Pap test alone every 3 years based on your healthcare professional’s recommendation.
“Depending on your personal health history, you may still need to be screened after a hysterectomy,” said Dr. Puls.
When cervical cancer is found early, it is highly treatable. The survival rate is high and associated with good quality of life. “Cervical cancer is the easiest gynecologic cancer to prevent with regular screening tests and follow-up,” said Dr. Puls. Take control of your health today and schedule your regular healthcare screenings.
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