Cancer of the cervix, a very common kind of cancer in women, is a disease in which cancer (malignant) cells are found in the tissues of the cervix. The cervix is the opening of the uterus (womb). It connects the uterus to the vagina (the birth canal). Cancer of the cervix usually grows slowly over a period of time. Before cancer cells are found on the cervix, the tissues of the cervix go through changes in which abnormal cells begin to appear (a condition called dysplasia). Later, cancer starts to grow and spread more deeply into the cervix and to surrounding areas.
Risk Factors for Cervical Cancer
It appears that the main causal factor in cervical cancer is the genital human papilloma virus (HPV) or the genital wart virus. The presence of genital HPV has been found in almost all cases of cervical cancer. However, because the vast majority of women with genital HPV do not develop cervical cancer it is thought that other co-factors, such as smoking, also need to be present. Genital HPV is primarily transmitted through sexual contact and, therefore, the risk factors for cervical cancer are related to sexual behaviour. Risk factors include:
- Sexual Activity - Women who have never had sexual intercourse do not tend to develop cervical cancer
- Early Sexual Intercourse - Evidence from many studies suggests that adolescent sexual intercourse increases the risk of developing cervical cancer
- Sexual activity with a number of different partners - Multiple partners increase a woman's chance of contracting a sexually transmitted infection, as does sexual intercourse with a person who has had multiple partners
- Smoking - Although it is not known how the mechanism works, the association between smoking and cervical cancer is well-recognised
Symptoms of cervical cancer
There are no real symptoms of the early stages of cervical cancer. That is why is it is so important that your doctor does a series of tests regularly to look for it. The first of these is a Pap smear, which is done by using a piece of cotton, a brush, or a small wooden stick to gently scrape the outside of the cervix to pick up some cells that can be examined under a microscope. You may feel some pressure, but you usually do not feel pain. Most cervical cancers can be caught early with regular screening.
What are the treatments for cervical cancer?
Treatments for cancer of the cervix depend on the stage of disease, the size of the tumour, and a woman's age, overall physical condition, and desire to have children. Treatment for cervical cancer during pregnancy may be delayed, depending on the stage of the cancer and how many months of pregnancy remain. There are three kinds of treatment for women with cancer of the cervix:
- Surgery - Removing the cancer in an operation
- Radiation Therapy - Using high-dose x-rays or other high-energy rays to kill cancer cells
- Chemotherapy - Using drugs to kill cancer cells
The National Cancer Institute recommends that doctors should strongly consider giving chemotherapy at the same time as radiation therapy for women with invasive cervical cancer. Up to now, surgery or radiation alone has been considered standard treatment for this form of cancer.