Cervical Cancer Screening
What is cervical cancer?
In cervical cancer, cells of the uterine cervix undergo genetic changes and start to grow tumors. The uterine cervix is a structure placed deep within your vagina. It is located in the lower portion of the womb. It is often called the neck of the womb because it is a narrow and tight area that opens into the vagina. In cervical cancer, tumor cells undergo accelerated growth in the superficial lining of the cervix. In time, they start spreading to deeper tissues and invade other parts of the body. It eventually becomes life-threatening if not properly addressed.
What increases your risk of cervical cancer?
There are several risk factors for cervical cancer. As we grow older, the risk tends to increase, especially in smokers. However, the most important risk factor for cervical cancer is an infection with the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV).
The majority of women with an active sexual life get infected with HPV. In the majority of cases, the infection has no consequences. However, persistent HPV infection in the cervix causes alterations in the cells. These alterations aggregate and turn into cervical cancer.
Certain strains of HPV cause cancer, while others are considered less aggressive. If you have a cancerous strain of HPV, smoking can further increase the risk of developing abnormal changes in the uterine cervix.
Screening methods for cervical cancer
Even if you don’t have symptoms of cervical cancer, there’s much you can do to prevent this disease. There are a series of tests performed in healthy women to rule out cervical cancer. This process of ruling out cancer is also known as screening.
The most important tool for screening is called a pap smear, short for Papanicolaou smear. In this exam, a gynecologist puts a speculum into the vagina. He will look for the cervix and see its appearance. Then, your doctor will take a sample of the lining of the cervix and analyze it under the microscope.
How to reduce your risk of cervical cancer?
There are multiple ways to reduce the risk of cervical cancer:
Perform regular pap smear tests
Women in their reproductive years (25 to 44 years old) should have regular pap smear tests. The recommended interval to perform a new pap spear is 3 years until 44 years old and 5 years from 45 to 65 years old. After that, pap smear tests are not usually done, unless your doctor says otherwise.
Through this test, it is possible to detect changes in your cervix lining before they grow into malignant tumors.
Smoking is a modifiable risk factor for cervical cancer. In other words, by quitting cigarette smoking, we are changing our risk of cervical cancer. If you don’t smoke, it will be easier for your body to fight HPV.
Get an HPV vaccine
Vaccination for HPV in early reproductive years reduces the risk of cervical cancer. It is recommended for girls to protect them in their adult life.
Symptoms of cervical cancer
• Abnormal vaginal bleeding: Such as bleeding after sexual intercourse, after your menopause, or between your periods.
• Vaginal discharge: Typically a foul-smelling discharge.
• Pain during sexual intercourse: It can be either discomfort or pain in the pelvic area.
What to do if you have these symptoms
Many ailments can cause these symptoms, not only cervical cancer. Thus, if you have any symptoms, ask your doctor and get your routine check with your gynecologist.
It is probably not cancer. But you need to rule it out, anyways. Spotting cancer soon gives you and your doctor tools and the opportunity to fix the problem and recover.
Diagnosis of cervical cancer
There are several tests and methods to diagnose cervical cancer:
- Physical examination: Your doctor will examine your body and use a speculum to examine your cervix. Sometimes, late-stage cancer can be suspected without a microscope.
- Colposcopy: This exam starts as a typical physical examination with a speculum. But then, your doctor will use a colposcope to examine the lining of your cervix. The colposcope is a sort of microscope with a bright light that is adapted for this type of exam.
- Biopsy: To perform a biopsy, your doctor will take a sample of your cervix and evaluate your cervical tissue under the microscope.
Facts about cervical cancer
Cervical cancer appears gradually. In the majority of cases, we will be able to see pre-cancerous conditions known as CIN. They are not cancer but may turn into cervical cancer if not treated. HPV infection is a risk factor, but cervical cancer is not infectious by itself. This type of tumor is more frequent in patients between 40 and 50 years old, but it can happen at any age.