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For women who undergo screening and who are diagnosed early, cervical cancer is highly treatable. Waiting for symptoms of cervical cancer to appear, however, holds the potential for the cancer to progress to an advanced stage and become life threatening. Likewise, vaccinations for men and women to prevent human papillomavirus (HPV), a leading cause of cervical cancer, means more and more women are dodging symptoms of cervical cancer altogether.
Cervical Cancer Causes, Risk Factors, and Treatment
The cervix is the lower end of a woman’s uterus and is located at the top of the vagina. It is about two inches long and is connected to the cervical canal, which allows menstrual blood to leave the uterus and, during labor and delivery, allows a baby to pass from the uterus into the birth canal.
When precancerous cells begin to form on the surface of the cervix, the condition is known as dysplasia and can be detected by a Pap smear. If any abnormal cells are detected, your doctor will most likely perform a colposcopy— where the cervix is examined under magnification—as well as a biopsy.
Almost all cervical cancers are caused by certain strains of HPV, which are contracted through sexual intercourse. HPV is very common, so most people will contract it at some point in their lives. In most women, the virus will clear up on its own, but if it doesn’t, HPV may cause cervical cancer.
Risk factors for cervical cancer include smoking, having multiple sexual partners, having sex at an early age, and failing to get the HPV vaccine. If you have been diagnosed with cervical cancer, you most likely will be referred to a gynecologic oncologist, who will create a treatment plan for you that may include surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiation.
What Are the Symptoms of Cervical Cancer?
If a lingering HPV infection has progressed to early-stage cervical cancer, you might not notice any signs or symptoms. But if you start to experience any unusual vaginal bleeding between periods, a discharge, or bleeding after sexual intercourse, it’s time to see your doctor, as these may be signs of cervical cancer at an advanced stage.
The good news is that most women don’t have to worry about detecting symptoms of cervical cancer themselves if they follow these guidelines:
- Get the HPV vaccine. Currently, there are three FDA-approved vaccines that help prevent HPV: Gardasil, Gardasil 9, and Cervarix. Gardasil can be administered to males and females aged 9 through 26, Gardasil 9 can be administered to males aged 9 through 15 and females aged 9 through 26, and Cervarix can be administered to females aged 9 through 25. All three vaccines are given through a series of three injections into muscle tissue over a six-month period. It is important to keep in mind, however, that these vaccines don’t protect against all HPV infections that cause cancer. Visit the National Cancer Institute’s website for more information.
- Practice safe and responsible sex. Using condoms during sexual intercourse reduces the risk of HPV, as well as other sexually transmitted diseases. Limiting your amount of sexual partners and avoiding partners that engage in high-risk sexual activity is also recommended.
- Get Pap smears. Getting a routine Pap test is one of the most effective ways of detecting most cervical cancers at their earliest stage. Women should start getting screened at the age of 21. The test should be done every three years (or on a schedule recommended by your doctor) up until the age of 65 as long as you’ve had three negative tests within the past 10 years. Women over the age of 30 can also have an HPV test in addition to the Pap test every five years if both tests come back normal.
- Stop smoking. Smoking increases your risk of getting cervical cancer, so it’s best to quit as soon as possible.
Worldwide, cervical cancer is the third-most-common type of cancer in women, so it’s important not to wait for symptoms of cervical cancer to appear. Maintaining routine check-ups with your OB/GYN and practicing safe sex offer your best defense.
For related reading, please visit these posts:
- HPV-Related Throat Cancer on the Rise Among Men
- Take Precautions Before Cervical Cancer Symptoms Manifest
- Uterine Cancer Symptoms Can Lead to Early Diagnosis
- What Is Acidophilus and What Are Its Benefits?
- Respond Quickly to Ovarian Cancer Symptoms
- Ovarian Cyst Symptoms: How They Develop, How to Treat Them
This article was originally published in 2016. It is regularly updated.