Cancer is the big “C-word” diagnosis that no one wants to hear, no matter how high its survival rate. One of the more common—and treatable—cancers that affect women is cervical cancer.
Women have an excellent rate of surviving cervical cancer when it is found and treated in its early stages. Even better, cervical cancer can be easily prevented through regular screenings done painlessly during your well-woman checks.
Cervical Cancer: Symptoms, Causes, Treatments
Most Common Symptoms of Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer is asymptomatic in its earliest, most treatable stages—meaning, you won’t notice any symptoms. This is why regular screenings are so important.
Once cervical cancer becomes more advanced, you may notice changes in vaginal bleeding or discharge, such as bleeding between periods, after sex, or even after menopause. This could range from light spotting to heavy bleeding, or other abnormal discharge.
The most advanced cases of cervical cancer cause pelvic and back pain and changes in urination and bowel movements.
What Causes Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer is usually the result of a progression of abnormal cells that have gone undetected for 20-25 years. While we don’t know what causes every instance of cervical cancer, we do know the cause of more than 95% of cervical cancer: persistent cases of specific strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV).
HPV is a viral, sexually transmitted infection (STI) that often has no side effects but that can cause warts or skin growths in the genital regions, the mouth, and the throat. It is the most common STI. Not every type of HPV causes cancer, but the ones that do cause cancer can be prevented by the HPV vaccine.
How to Prevent Cervical Cancer
The first step to preventing cervical cancer is to get the HPV vaccine before becoming sexually active. This can prevent you from getting the cancer-causing strains of HPV. Even if you’re already sexually active, getting the vaccine can prevent you from contracting strains you have not been exposed to yet.
The next step is to stay up to date on your Pap tests and HPV tests so that any irregular cells or infections can be detected as soon as possible. The Pap test (or Pap smear) looks for irregular or precancerous cells. The HPV test looks for the presence of HPV in your body.
For both of these tests, your OBGYN will gently swab your cervix and the surrounding area to remove some cells that can be examined in a lab using a microscope.
When to Get Pap Tests & HPV Tests
Age 21 – 20:
- Get your first Pap test / Cervical cancer screening at age 21.
- If there are no abnormal cells, then continue with screening every three years.
- If abnormal cells are found, get screened annually and get tested for HPV.
Get your HPV test and Pap test at age 30 if your previous screenings showed no abnormal results.
If your results continue to be normal, reduce screening to every 5 years.
Regardless of your age, your screening intervals could become more frequent based on your Pap and HPV results.
Understanding Pap and HPV Test Results
Pap Test Results
If precancerous or abnormal cells are found during the Pap test, what happens next depends on the abnormality of the cells. If they are low-grade abnormal, then you will simply be monitored more regularly to see if they progress and become more abnormal. If the cells are high-grade but not severe, then you will be monitored even more closely. Depending on your plans for childbearing, your OBGYN may recommend you have a LEEP procedure to remove the abnormal cells before they turn cancerous.
If cancerous cells are found, then further tests will be done to see how advanced the cancer is and if it has spread to any other areas of your body.
HPV Test Results
If HPV is found, it doesn’t mean that you have or will have cervical cancer. But it does mean that you will be more regularly monitored to see how long the virus persists in your body. (Remember, most cervical cancer is caused by PERSISTENT cases of certain strains of HPV.)
Because HPV is a virus, there is no treatment for it—for most people, HPV goes away on its own. Long-lasting HPV increases the risk of cervical cancer over time, which is why you will be screened more regularly.
The next step will be to determine which strain (genotype) of HPV you have. There are more than 100 kinds of HPV. Only a few of them cause health problems.
How to Treat Cervical Cancer
There are different options to treat cervical cancer depending on when it is found, where the cancerous cells were found, your age, and your overall health.
Options for treating cervical cancer include:
- radiation therapy and chemo
- simple hysterectomy (removal of the cervix and uterus)
- radical hysterectomy (removal of cervix, uterus, ovaries and fallopian tubes)
HPV: Symptoms, Prevention, Treatments
What Causes HPV
HPV is a sexually transmitted virus. It is passed through genital contact and skin-to-skin contact.
What Does HPV Do?
Some strains of HPV can cause genital warts that are not cancerous. A few types of HPV can cause cancer if they persist in your body for two years or longer.
The types of HPV that cause cancer are HPV16 (highest risk for causing cancer) and HPV18 (second highest risk for causing cancer). It can also cause cancers of the vulva and vagina in females, and cancers of the anus, mouth, and throat in males and females. There is no way to screen for HPV in these regions.
How to Prevent HPV
Most people who have sexual intercourse will be exposed to HPV at some point, but there are steps you can take to prevent getting it.
- Practice abstinence or use barrier contraception during sexual contact (genital and oral).
- Limit your number of sexual partners.
- Choose a sexual partner who has had limited sexual partners.
- Get the HPV vaccine before becoming sexually active.
When to Get the HPV Vaccine
The HPV vaccine has been available and approved by the FDA since 2006. It is recommended that people (male and female) get the vaccination between ages 11-26 and is approved for people up to age 45.
- Children 11-15 will need two doses (two shots) to reach immunity
- Children and adults over age 15 will need three doses to reach immunity
The vaccine works best when given before a person is infected. It won’t cure an infection. If you are already sexually active, there is still a benefit to getting the vaccine because it could prevent strains you have not yet been exposed to.
How to Treat HPV
There is no treatment for HPV itself, but there are treatments for the problems caused by HPV (for example, genital warts or cervical changes).
Like any virus, your body’s immune system is responsible for getting rid of it. The best way you can “treat” HPV is by making healthy choices that promote a strong immune system.
Promote a strong immune system by:
- Eating a nutritious diet
- Exercising regularly
- Getting adequate sunlight or supplement with vitamin D
- Getting adequate sleep
- Not smoking or using nicotine. Smoking leads to more persistent cases of HPV.
- Not using illegal drugs
- Not abusing alcohol
What to Do if You Have HPV
Most cases of HPV are asymptomatic and people don’t know they have HPV until they are tested. Some strains of HPV cause genital warts or growths. If you have genital warts or skin growths on your genitals, anus, mouth, or throat, do not have sexual intercourse.
For most people, HPV goes away on its own. However, people with weaker immune systems and people who smoke are more likely to have persistent cases of HPV.
The Most Important Cervical Cancer Prevention: Regular Screening
Cervical cancer and the virus that causes it rarely have symptoms. That is why regular screening is so important. And the procedure to test for it is practically painless.
Screening may be a little awkward at first, but those short moments of awkwardness can save you a lot of pain and discomfort down the road.
Shannon Wixom is a board certified Nurse Practitioner and Lactation Consultant. She earned her Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Edgewood College in 2005. After graduating nursing school, she enjoyed 13 years caring for women as a labor and delivery nurse. She obtained her Master of Science in Nursing from Concordia University and began her career as a Nurse Practitioner in 2018. Her experience in primary care and passion for women’s health led her to Madison Women’s Health. Her areas of special interest include preventive health, pregnancy and reproductive health care.