Cervical cancer is most commonly caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), which can be spread through sexual contact with an infected partner. Most adults are infected with HPV at some point in their lives. However, not all types of HPV cause cancer- some may cause genital warts, while others produce no symptoms at all. You may be at a higher risk of HPV and cervical cancer if you have multiple sexual partners or began having sex at an early age. In addition, having other sexually transmitted infections (STI) or a weakened immune system can also increase your chances of HPV.
The cervix is the lowest portion of the uterus, which opens into the vagina. In early stages, cervical cells begin to change. At this point, the abnormal cervical cells rarely cause symptoms. Cervical cancer occurs when those abnormal cells begin to grow out of control. Once the abnormal cells develop into cancer, symptoms may appear. You should tell your OBGYN if you experience abnormal bleeding or discharge that does not occur with menstruation, pain or bleeding with sex or pain in the lower abdomen or pelvis. Any abnormalities will likely be identified at your annual exam and pap smear, or pap test.
During a pap test, your OBGYN will scrape off a small sample of cervical cells to look for changes. Although, most abnormal pap smears are not cancer-related- inflammation or a vaginal infection can cause an abnormal reading. So, in the event the pap smear is abnormal, your doctor will likely recommend additional tests to determine whether the result was due to cells that are pre-cancerous or cancerous.
Your OBGYN will likely suggest a colposcopy to determine whether if the abnormal pap smear was due to cervical cell changes. During a colposcopy, your doctor will visually examine the cervix and take a small sample, or biopsy. The procedure takes about 15 minutes and is painless, though you may experience discomfort for 24-48 hours following.
If treated before the cells transition into cancer, cervical cancer can be prevented. When caught early, cervical cancer can be easily treated. Very early-stage cervical cancer may be treated with a minimally-invasive surgical procedure that protects your ability to have children. For more advanced stages, surgery may require removing the uterus and cervix, also known as a hysterectomy. This would prevent you from becoming pregnant in the future.
It’s important to schedule your annual exam and pap smear to catch any cell changes or cancer early. Tell your doctor if you are experiencing any symptoms or pain. Cervical cancer is easily prevented or treated at an early stage. For women 26 and under, speak with your OBGYN about receiving an HPV vaccine to protect against the types of the virus that most commonly result in cervical cancer.