Understanding Cervical Cancer

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), nearly 14,000 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2023. Over one-third of them will die from the disease.

While statistics like these are alarming, the important thing to know is cervical cancer is largely preventable. Read on to learn about cervical cancer, what causes it and how to prevent it.

Cervical cancer is a type of cancer originating in the cervix. The cervix is the part of the female anatomy that connects the vagina to the uterus. Cervical cancer typically develops in women over 30, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, anyone with a cervix is at risk for cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer often does not present symptoms early on. When it does cause symptoms, they are usually unexpected bleeding, bloating, pelvic pain and fullness. These may be symptoms of other gynecological cancers as well, such as ovarian and uterine cancer. 

The CDC estimates that 90% of cervical cancer cases are caused by genital human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. HPV is a common sexually transmitted infection. According to CDC research, 80% of women have been infected with HPV at some point, although many don’t know it. That’s because the body’s immune system usually resolves the infection within a couple of years.

However, the body can’t always resolve the infection. Over time, HPV can cause healthy cells in the cervix to turn into cancer cells. The CDC estimates that 10% of women infected with HPV will have it long term, increasing their chances of developing cervical cancer. 

There are two primary ways to prevent cervical cancer:

  • Get vaccinated against HPV.
  • Get screened regularly.

HPV vaccine

The HPV vaccine helps prevent a person from becoming infected with HPV. It protects against the strains of HPV most commonly associated with cervical cancer. It also protects against strains of HPV that cause genital warts.

The ACS recommends all children ages 9 through 12 receive the vaccine. Those between 13 and 26 can still get vaccinated, but the vaccine isn’t as effective for this group. The ACS doesn’t recommend the vaccine for adults older than 26.

The ACS also notes the vaccine does not prevent every cancer-causing strain of HPV. That’s why regular screenings are important.

Screenings

Cervical cancer screenings look for cancer and “pre-cancers,” or conditions that can lead to cancer. There are two types of screenings: Pap tests and HPV tests. Both involve scraping the cervix to collect cells for testing.

  • Pap tests, or Pap smears, look for cancerous and pre-cancerous cells. They are the primary way of detecting cervical cancer. The ACS notes most women with cervical cancer haven’t gotten regular Pap tests.
  • HPV tests look for strains of HPV linked to cervical cancer. This type of test may be done on its own or in addition to a Pap test.

If a screening detects pre-cancer, the condition can be treated so it doesn’t develop into invasive cancer.

As with many other types of cancer, early detection of cervical cancer is critical. To detect and prevent cervical cancer, the ACS recommends the following screening schedule:

AgeRecommendation
<25Get the HPV vaccine (no screening needed).
25-65Get an HPV test every 5 years or a Pap test every 3 years (regardless of vaccination status).
>65If all tests within the past 10 years have been normal, discontinue testing. If diagnosed with pre-cancer, continue testing for at least 25 years.

By getting screened regularly and getting vaccinated (if eligible), you can avoid becoming a statistic. For questions about cervical cancer, the HPV vaccine or the screening process, talk to your doctor. 

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