Cervical cancer is the 4th most common type of cancer in women. In the United States, 14,000 women are diagnosed with this type of cancer. About 4,300 women die from cervical cancer each year in the US. The issue is even bigger worldwide because about 260,000 women die from this cancer. These numbers are very high. We all need to do something to reduce cervical cancer deaths.
What Causes Cervical Cancer
Almost all cervical cancers develop from the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) infections. There is a lot of conflicting information on the internet. The reason for the confusion is because HPV is not well known and studied. What we know is that HPV can cause genital warts and cervical cancer.
Understanding the Human Papillomavirus (HPV)
HPV is a group of viruses that affect the skin and the moist membranes like the cervix, anus, throat, and mouth. These viruses do slightly different things. Not all types of HPV cause cancer. HPV 6 and 8 cause genital warts, while HPV 16 and 18 are related to cervical cancer.
It is important to note that most sexually active people get infected with HPV, but very few get genital warts and cancer. The immune system clears the virus out of the body naturally.
It is also important to note that HPV infects both men and women. HPV causes cervix, vulva, and vaginal cancers in women and penile cancer in men. The virus can also cause cancer of the oropharynx and anus.
How HPV Causes Cervical Cancer
HPV-related cancers develop when HPV infections persist for too long. The virus causes some cell changes after staying in the cervix for too long. If untreated, those changes end up becoming cancer. Cervical cancer occurs when a high-risk HPV (HPV 16 and HPV 18) persists for many years. It takes 10 to 20 years for HPV-infected cervical cells to develop into a cancerous tumor.
When high-risk HPV gets into the body, it interferes with how the cervix cells communicate with each other. The infected cells then start to multiply in an uncontrolled manner. The immune system detects the changes and starts controlling these cells. If the immune system fails to stop the uncontrolled growth, the infected cells continue to grow and form precancerous tissue. If the patient is not treated, the precancerous tissue develops to form a cancerous tumor. It can take 10 to 20 years or more for an HPV infection to develop into cervical cancer.
How HPV is Transmitted
You can get HPV by having sex with an HPV-positive partner. According to CDC, HPV is easily transmitted during vaginal and anal sex. The virus can also be transmitted through oral sex and skin-to-skin contact during sex. Using dental dams and condoms can lower the risks, but they can’t completely prevent it. Once the virus gets into the body, you become contagious until after one to two years. During this time, your immune will be fighting and eliminating the virus from the body.
Symptoms of HPV Infection and Cervical Cancer
There are different types of HPV. The symptoms depend on the strain of HPV that a person has. In most cases, HPV doesn’t cause symptoms. The most common symptoms of genital HPV infection are genital warts. HPV warts present as a cluster or a scatter of bumps. They can also be flat, smooth, raised, and rough.
Warts are signs of a low-risk HPV infection. There is a type of vulva cancer that presents as cauliflower growths (a cluster of warts). You should talk to your doctor if you see unusual growths in the vulva.
An HPV infection that has developed into cancer can present symptoms such as:
- bleeding after sex
- Unusual discharge
- swollen glands
Remember, these symptoms can be caused by something else other than cancer. If you have cancer, they will start presenting themselves after it has advanced. Early cervical cancer doesn’t present any symptoms.
Cervical Cancer Screening
Now that not all HPV infections show symptoms. Cervical cancer also doesn’t show signs until it is too late. Regular screening can help prevent cervical cancer or find it early.
Two screening tests can find cervical cancer early. The HPV test looks for the HPV virus that causes most cervical cancers. The Pap test looks for changes in cervix cells that are likely to develop into cancer if not treated. In other words, an HPV test looks for HPV infection while a Pap test checks whether the cervix cells are normal.
Women between the age of 21 to 29 should get a Pap test after every three years. Your doctor may order more tests if need be.
Women between the age of 30 and 65 years should get an HPV test after every five years. Your doctor may order more tests if need be. Women in this age group should also get a Pap test after every three years.
Women who are older than 65 years who have been getting normal screening results don’t need routine screening.
Preparing for Cervical Cancer Screening
Do not schedule your cervical cancer screening on a day when you will be having your periods. You should also avoid having sex, using birth control foam, cream, or jelly, using tampons, and using medicine or cream inside your vaginal for at least two days before the test. Doing that will lower the chances of getting a false negative.
You may have to wait for your test results for up to three weeks. After getting the results, you should follow up with your doctor to know what they mean and what you need to do next.
If the test results are normal, it means that you don’t have cervical cancer. It also means that your chances of getting this type of cancer in the next few years are low. Your doctor will tell you how many years you should wait before getting another cervical cancer screening test.
Getting test results that are not normal does not mean that you have cervical cancer. There are many reasons why your results might not be normal. Your doctor will tell you whether the cells are likely to develop into cancer or not. If the cells are likely to develop into cancer, or they are already cancerous, your doctor will advise you on the best treatment option available for you.
Cervical Cancer Treatment
The loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP) procedure can treat precancerous cervical cell changes. It is a technique to remove abnormal tissue using an electric current. Your doctor can perform this procedure in the office. It takes a few minutes and only requires local anesthesia.
2. Cold Knife Conization
This procedure is done in a hospital and requires general anesthesia. Doctors will use a scalpel to remove a cone-shaped section of the abnormal tissue.
3. Laser therapy
Laser therapy involves the use of light to destroy abnormal tissues. A laser therapy procedure is done at a hospital and requires general anesthesia.
It is the use of a special cord to freeze and destroy abnormal cells. The procedure can be done at your doctor’s office and does not require anesthesia.
Preventing HPV Infection
Preventing HPV infections can lower your risk of related cancers and other diseases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Advisory Committee on Immunizations Practices (ACIP) recommends the HPV vaccine Gardasil 9 to prevent HPV infections and related cancers. The vaccine can protect you from up to nine HPV strains: seven high-risk HPV that cause cancer and two low-risk HPV that cause genital warts.
HPV vaccines will protect you from HPV infections, but they cannot cure an HPV infection if you already have it. Do not use the vaccine to treat HPV infections and related diseases.
Regular screening can help protect you from cervical cancer and increase the chances of finding it early. Remember, cancer is easy to treat in its early stages. Using condoms and abstaining from sex can reduce your HPV, but it can’t completely prevent infection. Quitting smoking can also reduce the risk of cervical pre-cancers and cancers.
Who Should Get the HPV Vaccine
Getting an HPV vaccination is the best way to prevent cancer. HPV vaccines are safe for anyone between the age of 9-26. Both men and females in this age bracket should get vaccinated. People who get this shot before age 15 need two doses, while those that get the first HPV shot at age 15 or older need three doses.
The vaccine offers the most protection when given at age 9-12. Getting an HPV shot at this age can protect you from up to 90 percent of HPV-related cancers and other diseases.
People aged 27-45 who did not get an HPV vaccine at an early age can also be vaccinated, but they will benefit less. That is because most of them have been exposed to the virus already. If you are in this age bracket and are concerned that you might be exposed to a new HPV infection in the future, talk to your doctor to determine whether you need to get an HPV shot.