Definition of cervical cancer: Cancer that forms in tissues of the cervix (the organ connecting the uterus and vagina). It is usually a slow-growing cancer that may not have symptoms but can be found with regular Pap tests (a procedure in which cells are scraped from the cervix and looked at under a microscope). Cervical cancer is almost always caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. Women with early cervical cancers and pre-cancers usually have no symptoms. Symptoms often do not begin until a pre-cancer becomes a true invasive cancer and grows into nearby tissue.
In the United States, an estimated 12,170 new cases of invasive cervical cancer were expected to be diagnosed in 2012, with an estimated 4,220 deaths. But there have been fewer deaths over the past several decades due to cancer screening tests. That’s great news. But we can reduce the number of people even getting cervical cancer through awareness.
Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in women worldwide after breast cancer, and in developing countries, the leading cause of death by cancer.
A Pap test can save your life. It can find the earliest signs of cervical cancer. If caught early, the chance of curing cervical cancer is very high. Pap tests also can find infections and abnormal cervical cells that can turn into cancer cells. Treatment can prevent most cases of cervical cancer from developing. Getting regular Pap tests is the best thing you can do to prevent cervical cancer. In fact, regular Pap tests have led to a major decline in the number of cervical cancer cases and deaths.
Virtually all cervical cancers are caused by HPV. There are more than 100 types of HPV, of which a few dozen can infect the genital tract and about 15 can cause cancer of the cervix. The types of HPV that cause cervical cancer are transmitted by genital skin-to-skin contact, almost always during sex. Infections are usually temporary, with the body’s immune system fighting off the infection before there are any symptoms. In some cases, the infection doesn’t go away, and the virus may cause cells in the cervix to become pre-cancerous. These pre-cancerous cells in turn usually go back to normal on their own, but sometimes they turn into cancer if they are not found and removed or treated.
What a lot of people don’t realize is that most cervical cancer can be prevented. There are two ways to prevent this disease:
The first way is to find and treat pre-cancers before they become cancer. The Pap test (or Pap smear) is the most common way to find pre-cancers before they can turn into cancer. In fact, most cervical cancers are diagnosed in women who have never had a Pap test, or who haven’t had one in the last five years. HPV tests to find out if you have an HPV infection that could cause cervical cancer are also available and a very helpful tool in the prevention of cervical cancer and pre-cancers. When a HPV test comes back positive, it lets the health care professional know that a woman is at higher risk for cervical pre-cancers.
Then there’s the second way of preventing cervical cancer: getting vaccinated against the two types of HPV that cause 70% of all cervical cancers. There are two vaccines available for this purpose in the United States, Gardasil and Cervarix.
HPV vaccines are not approved nor recommended for girls younger than 9 or for women older than age 26.
Each day in the United States, an estimated of 30 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer (about 12,000 women per year) and 11 women die from it. Cervical cancer is cancer of the cervix (the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina). Unlike other cancers, cervical cancer is not considered to be passed down through family genes. Cervical cancer is caused by certain types of avirus—human papillomavirus or HPV.
When a woman is infected with certain types of HPV, and the virus doesn’t go away on its own,abnormal cells can develop in the lining of the cervix. If these abnormal cells are not found early and treated, precancers and then cervical cancer can develop.
Cervical cancer is the term for a malignant neoplasm arising from cells originating in the cervix uteri. One of the most common symptoms of cervical cancer is abnormal vaginal bleeding, but in some cases there may be no obvious symptoms until the cancer has progressed to an advanced stage. Treatment usually consists of surgery (including local excision) in early stages, and chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy in more advanced stages of the disease.
Cancer screening using the Pap smear can identify precancerous and potentially precancerous changes in cervical cells and tissue. Treatment of high-grade changes can prevent the development of cancer in many victims. In developed countries, the widespread use of cervical screening programs has reduced the incidence of invasive cervical cancer by 50% or more.
Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection appears to be a necessary factor in the development of almost all cases (90+%) of cervical cancer. HPV vaccines effective against the two strains of this large family of viruses that currently cause approximately 70% of cases of cervical cancer have been licensed in the U.S, Canada, Australia and the EU. Since the vaccines only cover some of the cancer causing (“high-risk”)types of HPV, women should seek regular Pap smear screening, even after vaccination.
What are the statistics about Cervical Cancer?
The American Cancer Society’s most recent estimates for cervical cancer in the United States are for 2012:
About 12,170 new cases of invasive cervical cancer will be diagnosed.
About 4,220 women will die from cervical cancer.
Some researchers estimate that non-invasive cervical cancer (carcinoma in situ) occurs about 4 times more often than invasive cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer was once one of the most common causes of cancer death for American women. Then, between 1955 and 1992, the cervical cancer death rate declined by almost 70%. The main reason for this change was the increased use of the Pap test. This screening procedure can find changes in the cervix before cancer develops. It can also find cervical cancer early—in its most curable stage. The death rate from cervical cancer continued to decline until 2003. Since then it has remained stable in white women, but has gone down in African American women.
Cervical cancer tends to occur in midlife. Most cases are found in women younger than 50. It rarely develops in women younger than 20. Many older women do not realize that the risk of developing cervical cancer is still present as they age. More than 20% of cases of cervical cancer are found in women over 65. However these cancers rarely occur in women who have been getting regular tests to screen for cervical cancer before they were 65.
In the United States, Hispanic women are most likely to get cervical cancer, followed by African-Americans, Asians and Pacific Islanders, and whites. American Indians and Alaskan natives have the lowest risk of cervical cancer in this country.
Half of the women who get cervical cancer are between 30 and 55 years of age.
All women with cervical cancer have had a human papillomavirus (HPV) infection at some time in their life. However, most women with an HPV infection will never get any disease related to that infection. Also, most HPV infections will clear on their own. Over the last 50 years, routine Pap test screening for cervical cancer has reduced deaths from the cancer by 74%.
Still, cervical cancer is the second-most common cause of death from cancer in women across the world. Widespread use of HPV vaccines are expected to have a huge impact in resource-poor countries. In those areas, cervical cancer is often the most common cause of death from cancer in women.
Can Cervical Cancer be prevented?
Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable types of cancer. Here is why:
- You can mostly control the risk factors.
- The Pap test is a highly effective screening test.
- There is an approved vaccine to prevent some of the most common types of the human papillomavirus (HPV). That’s the virus that causes many types of cervical cancer.
- A test for HPV provides an added tool to screen for early signs of infection when treatment options are most effective.
Since the most common form of cervical cancer starts with pre-cancerous changes, there are two ways to stop this disease from developing. One way is to find and treat pre-cancers before they become true cancers, and the other is to prevent the pre-cancers in the first place.
“Because of Pap smears, a huge number of women are no longer dying of cervical cancer in this country, but this is a disease that can be almost entirely prevented,” says Carolyn Johnston, M.D., clinical associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Michigan Medical School and a gynecologic oncologist at the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center.
In addition to early detection through screening, a new vaccine now available could help prevent cervical cancer. To protect yourself, learn about the risk factors. Then take action to avoid the ones you can. Make sure you regularly see your doctor for a Pap test and pelvic exam. While you’re at your doctor’s office, ask about the HPV vaccine. This can be very important for you and your daughters. Also ask about the HPV test. Early vaccination along with regular screening is the best way to prevent cervical cancer.