Cervical cancer is one of the most common cancers of women worldwide, but many people know very little about this invasive cancer. Fortunately, you can learn everything you need to know about cervical cancer with an online search.
This type of cancer affects the cervix, which is the lower part of the uterus. Cervical cancer is a slow-growing cancer. In fact, its progression from a pre-cancerous lesion to full-blown cancer can take decades.
Signs and Symptoms
Since this disease progresses slowly, it is common for women with early-stage cervical cancers to have no signs or symptoms. As cervical cancer progresses, it may lead to signs and symptoms, such as:
- Vaginal bleeding, especially if between periods, after sexual intercourse, or after menopause
- Vaginal discharge, which may be watery and/or bloody with or without a foul odor
- Pain/discomfort with sexual intercourse
- Pelvic pain
- Periods that are longer or heavier than normal
Additionally, if cervical cancer has spread to nearby or distant organs, symptoms may include:
- Painful urination
- Bloody urine
- Low back pain and/or constipation
- Weight loss
- Rectal pain or bleeding with defecation
- Abdominal swelling from excess fluid, which leads to an increased diameter
No one knows exactly what causes cervical cancer. However, one of the main risk factors for this disease is human papillomavirus (HPV). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HPV is the most commonly sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the United States. Additionally, a diagnosis of another STI, such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, or HIV, increases your risk for HPV. There are more than 100 types of HPV, of which approximately 13 types have the potential to cause cervical cancer.
Although HPV may cause genital warts, it should be noted that they are very common. Most people with this diagnosis do not go on to develop cervical cancer, especially with the availability of HPV vaccines today.
Other risk factors for cervical cancer include:
- Early sexual contact
- Multiple sexual partners
- A weakened immune system
- Long-term use of oral contraceptives or birth control pills
Furthermore, ethnicity is a risk factor. As such, Hispanic women at greatest risk for cervical cancer, followed by African American, Asian/Pacific Islander, and Caucasian women. In fact, American Indian and Alaskan native women are at the lowest risk for cervical cancer in the United States.
Lastly, if your mother was administered a miscarriage prevention drug called diethylstilbestrol in the 1950s, you are at increased risk for cervical cancer.
Cervical cancers are classified by their appearance under a microscope. As such, there are two main types of cervical cancer:
- Squamous cell carcinoma
The great majority — 90 percent in fact — of cervical cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. They typically develop in exocervical cells and have thin, flat sheets of cells under the microscope.
The rest of the cervical cancers are adenocarcinomas. They typically develop in endocervical cells, which are mucus-producing glands.
Occasionally, both types of cells are involved in cervical cancer. This type is adenosquamous carcinoma or mixed carcinoma. Very rarely does cervical cancer occur in other types of cells within the cervix.
The stage of your cervical cancer is one of the most important determinants of your treatment plan. Knowing the stage provides insight into how successful treatment might be.
Cervical cancer can be categorized by the following stages:
- Stage 0:Pre-cancerous cells are present only on the surface of the cervix.
- Stage I: Cancer cells are confined to the uterus, specifically the cervix.
- Stage II: Cancer cells have grown beyond the cervix and uterus.
- Stage III: Cancer cells have spread to the lower part of the vagina or the walls of the pelvis.
- Stage IV: Cancer cells have spread to distant organs, such as the bladder, rectum, liver, bones, lungs, or distant lymph nodes.
It should be kept in mind that Stages I to III may or may not be characterized by the spread of cervical cancer cells to local lymph nodes. Also, Stage IV is the most advanced stage of the disease.
The ACS references information from the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) database to provide five-year relative survival rates for cervical cancer. Think of a relative five-year relative survival rate as comparing women who have cervical cancer with women who don’t have cervical cancer and their propensity to live at least five years after their cancer diagnosis.
The SEER database groups cervical cancers into three categories. They are:
- Localized Disease: Confined to the cervix/uterus.
- Regional Disease: Cancer has grown outside of cervix/uterus to neighboring structures.
- Distant Disease: Cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
The prognosis for cervical cancer (with treatment) is good with an overall five-year relative survival rate of 66 percent. Additionally, five-year relative survival rates were 92 percent for localized disease (Stage I), 56 percent for regional disease (Stage II and III), and 17 percent for distant disease (Stage IV). These results lend validity to the early diagnosis of cervical cancer through screening programs, which should increase your chances of survival.
It should be kept in mind that these five-year relative survival rates are averages and do not apply to everyone. There have been reports of successful treatment of Stage IV cervical cancer.
Living with Cervical Cancer
If you have or have had cervical cancer, you may want to know if there are things you can do to potentially lower your risk of cancer progression or recurrence. Some general recommendations for women living with cervical cancer include:
- Regular exercise for at least 30 minutes, four or more times per week
- A healthy diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, poultry, and fish
- Limit your intake of both red and processed meats and high-fat dairy products
- Maintaining a healthy weight, which is typically a BMI between 18.5 and 24.9 kg/m2
- Get enough rest, specifically seven to nine hours of sleep per night
No one really knows if the adoption of these behaviors will prevent or treat cervical cancer. However, many believe the positive effects on your health as a result of these behaviors can extend to lowering your risk of cervical cancer progression or recurrence.
Learn More Today
There’s so much to understand about this type of cancer, but taking the time to learn more about it online could help you spot early symptoms and get treatment at an early stage. And if you have any symptoms that could be due to cervical cancer — such as abnormal vaginal bleeding — you should bring them to the attention of your doctor right away.