Cervical cancer is cancer that begins in the cervix of the vagina, which is the entrance to the womb from the vagina.
Today, cervical screening programs help prevent this type of cancer and help in early diagnostics. The sooner the cervical cancer is diagnosed and treated, the better the chances for complete cure.
If cervical cancer is left undiagnosed and untreated, it will slowly spread into the vagina, the bones of the pelvis, the bladder, rectum, and possibly into your liver, bones, lungs, and the lymphatic system.
The symptoms of cervical cancer are noticed when the cancer has advanced. However, with regular smear tests, it can be early diagnosed and cured. Therefore, regular visits to the gynecologist are essential.
The symptoms vary in early and advanced stages. They are:
- unusual vaginal bleeding – after sexual intercourse, or in between periods, or after menopause
- discomfort during sexual intercourse
- smelling vaginal discharge
- blood in the urine
- urinary incontinence
- bone pain
- swelling of one of the legs or in the kidneys
- weight loss
- lack of energy
The cause of cervical cancer is the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a very common virus, often spread during sex.
There are more than 100 different types of HPV, divided into high-risk and low-risk types. HPV 16 and HPV 18, the two strains with the highest risk, are known to be responsible for 70% of all cases of cervical cancer. These types of HPV infection have no symptoms. However, gynecologists can notice the possible presence during a regular check-up, which has to be determined by test later.
However, it is important to be noted that not all women that have HPV infection develop cervical cancer.
The risk factors for developing cervical cancer are:
- Many sexual partners – the more partners, the greater the risk of being HPV infected
- Early sexual activity
- smoking – due to harmful effects of chemicals in tobacco on the cervical cells
- weakened immune system
- taking the oral contraceptive pill for more than five years – although it is not clear why cervical cancer can develop
- multiple births
The reason for the link between cervical cancer and childbirth is unclear. One theory is that the hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy could make the cervix more vulnerable to the effects of HPV.
Complications of cervical cancer can occur:
- side effects of treatment of advanced cervical cancer, such as early menopause, which further has its own symptoms
- narrowing of the vagina, which can occur due to radiation therapy, causing painful sexual intercourse
- lymphoedema – when lymph nodes are removed during cancer surgery, there is build-up of fluid in the tissue which results in swollen legs
- emotional impact
- in advanced cervical cancer: pain, kidney failure, blood clots, bleeding, fistula, vaginal discharge
Prevention of cervical cancer may be possible by reducing the possible risks:
- regular Pap tests
- practice safe sex
- eating healthy diet
- stop smoking
- HPV vaccines – for girls from 9-26 before they are sexually active