If you, or someone you love, has been diagnosed with cancer, you may not know what to do. Here's a list of tips and ways to cope with a cancer diagnosis.
What is Cervical Cancer?
Cervical cancer is cancer in the tissues of the cervix - the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. Various strains of human papillomavirus (HPV), which is a sexually transmitted infection, play a major role in causing the majority of cases of cervical cancer. It is usually a slow-growing cancer that may not have symptoms, but can be detected in regular Pap tests. A Pap test is a procedure in which cells are scraped from the cervix and then examined under a microscope.
When exposed to HPV, the female immune system usually prevents the virus from doing damage. However, in some women the virus survives for years which contributes to the process that causes cells on the surface of the cervix to become cancer cells.
Causes of Cervical Cancer:
Cervical cancer develops when healthy cells acquire a genetic mutation turning normal cells into abnormal cells. Healthy cells will grow and multiply at a set rate, and eventually die off at a set time. Cancer cells, however, grow and multiply out of pattern and don’t die. The accumulation of abnormal cells form a mass, also called a tumor. Cancer cells then invade the nearby tissues, and can break off from the original tumor to spread elsewhere in the body to form additional tumors (metastasize).
The exact cause of cervical cancer isn’t clear, however, it’s certain that HPV plays a key role as evidence of it is found in most instances of cervical cancer. HPV is a common virus though, and most women who have it may never develop cervical cancer. Therefore other risk factors, such as genetic makeup or environment, may influence whether you’ll develop cervical cancer.
Types of Cervical Cancer:
There are two primary types of cervical cancer:
- Squamous cell carcinomas - begin in the thin flat cells lining the bottom of the cervix called squamous cells. This is the most common cervical cancer.
- Adenocarcinomas - occurs in the glandular cells that line the cervical canal.
- In very rare instances both types of cells are involved in cervical cancer.
Risk Factors of Cervical Cancer:
Almost all cervical cancers are caused by HPV. Risk factors for developing cervical cancer include:
- Engaging in sexual intercourse at an early age
- Multiple sex partners
- Having sex partners who have multiple partners
- Not obtaining regularly scheduled Pap smears
- Participating in high-risk sexual activities
- Weakened immune system
Symptoms of Cervical Cancer:
Not all cases of cervical cancer show signs or symptoms. As the cancer progresses into a more advanced cervical cancer, common symptoms include:
- Vaginal bleeding after intercourse, between periods, or after menopause
- Watery bloody vaginal discharge, possibly heavy and with a foul odor
- Pelvic pain, pain during intercourse
- Back pain, or leg pain
- Bone fractures
- Leaking of urine or feces from the vagina
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
Diagnosis of Cervical Cancer:
Special tests are required to find cervical cancer. Pap smears help screen for precancers and cancer, but are not a final diagnosis. If abnormal changes are found during an exam or Pap smear, the cervix is then examined under magnification, or a colposcopy. A biopsy is performed to remove pieces of tissue to be sent to a lab for further examination. An endocervical curettage (ECC) may be performed to examine the opening of the cervix.
Once diagnosed with cervical cancer, the doctor may order additional tests to determine how far the cancer has spread. This determines the stage in which the cancer is in. Tests may include:
- Chest x-ray
- CT scan
- Intravenous pyelogram (IVP)
Treatment of Cervical Cancer:
Treatment for cervical cancer depends on the stage of the cancer, the woman’s age and health, the size of the tumor, and the woman’s desire to have children post cancer. Early stage cervical cancer can be treated by removing or destroying the cancerous tissue via surgery. There are ways to remove the tissue without removing the uterus, which will allow for the potential for children in the future.
Types of surgery include:
- Cryotherapy - freezing the abnormal cells
- Loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP) - using electricity to remove abnormal tissue
- Laser therapy - using light to burn abnormal tissue
- Hysterectomy - removes the uterus but not the ovaries (used for cancer that has spread, or after several LEEP procedures)
- Radical hysterectomy - removing the uterus, surrounding tissues, including lymph nodes and upper portion of the vagina
- Pelvic exenteration - an extreme procedure in which all of the pelvic organs are removed, including the bladder and rectum
Radiation is a treatment used in cancer that has spread beyond the pelvis, or for a returning cancer. Radiation therapy can be performed internally or externally. Internal radiation uses a device filled with radioactive material placed temporarily inside the vagina, next to the cervical cancer. External radiation beams radiation from a large machine directed to the portion of the body where the cancer is located. This process is similar to an x-ray.
Chemotherapy battles cancer with medication, and is often used in conjunction with radiation therapy.
Doctors have also developed a vaccine that may prevent most cases of cervical cancer in the future.
Additional Cervical Cancer Resources:
American Cancer Society- saves lives and creates a world with less cancer and more birthdays by helping people stay well, helping people get well, by finding cures, and by fighting back. Tons of good links to types of cancer, how to prevent cancer and different types of cancer.
National Cancer Institute: coordinates the National Cancer Program, which conducts and supports research, training, health information dissemination, and other programs with respect to the cause, diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of cancer, rehabilitation from cancer, and the continuing care of cancer patients and the families of cancer patients. Website has links to clinical trials and a comprehensive list of cancer-treating drugs.
Stand Up To Cancer - new initiative created to accelerate groundbreaking cancer research that will get new therapies to patients quickly and save lives. SU2C's goal is to bring together the best and the brightest in the cancer community, encouraging collaboration instead of competition. By galvanizing the entertainment industry, SU2C creates awareness and builds broad public support for this effort.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a reliable online source for health related information such as data or statistics, emergencies and disasters, healthy living, and diseases and medical conditions.
National Cervical Cancer Coalition is a growing coalition of people battling cervical cancer and HPV related issues.