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Cervical Cancer: Medical Information on Causes, Diagnosis, Symptoms and Treatment

cancer-of-the-cervixQuick Answers about Cervical Cancer

  • Cervical Cancer Overview
  • Defining Cervical Cancer
  • Cervical Cancer Causes
  • Cervical Cancer Symptoms
  • Diagnosing Cervical Cancer
  • Treating Cervical Cancer
  • Treatment Options for Early Stage Cancer
  • Treatment Options for Advanced Stage Cancer

Cervical Cancer

Cervical Cancer Overview

Cervical cancer starts to develop in the lining of the cervix – the lower part of the womb (uterus) – when precancerous or abnormal cells begin growing out of control. The disease often originates in the transformation zone, an area where the endocervix meets the ectocervix of the uterus that extends into the vagina.

The American Cancer Society and the National Institute of Health report that more than 12,000 American women will be diagnosed this year with cervical cancer, and 4000 women will succumb to the disease. For women, cervical cancer rates second as the most common form of deadly cancer. However, because it takes a significant amount of time to develop into a life-threatening condition, it remains one of the most preventable forms of cancer.

Defining Cervical Cancer

There are cervical and pre-cancer stages of the disease. Classifying each type requires analysis and evaluation under a microscope. Most cervical cancers (between 80 and 90 percent) involve squamous cancer cells. The remaining 10 to 20 percent of cases involve adenocarcinoma cells that develop in the endocervix by glands that produce mucus. Even though squamous cell carcinoma is more common, the incident rate of adenocarcinoma is beginning to rise significantly in younger women.

Though uncommon, cervical cancers can involve mixed carcinomas where both squamous cell carcinomas and adenocarcinoma exists. In addition, other forms of cancer could develop in the cervix involving melanoma (skin cancer), lymphoma (lymph cancer) and sarcoma (malignant non-epithelial tissue tumor) as a secondary cancer type.

Cervical Cancer Causes

Cancer develops because there is an uncontrollable division of cancer cells. This formation is different than the typical lifespan of a normal cell that before dying produces new healthy cells. Alternatively, an abnormal or cancerous cell does not die but instead continues to divide and produce more abnormal cells. In time, the excessive accumulation of cancerous cells will develop a tumor or lump. Scientists believe that specific risk factors help increase the potential of developing life-threatening cervical cancer. Some of these risk factors include:

  • Human Papillomavirus (HPV) – This virus is present in nearly all cases involving cervical cancer. While there are more than 100 varieties of human papillomavirus, only thirteen are known to cause cervical cancer.
  • Early Age Sexual Activity or Multiple Sexual Partners – A sexual partner infected with HPV can transmit the disease to the other, increasing the potential of the female developing cervical cancer.
  • Smoking – Research indicates that smoking has the potential of increasing cancer rates, including cervical cancer.
  • Multiple Pregnancies – Women who have had multiple individual pregnancies involving three or more children have a greater potential of developing cervical cancer than women who have never given birth.
  • Weakened Immune System – Immunosuppressive drugs used by transplant patients and those with HIV/AIDS can increase the potential risk of developing cervical cancer.
  • Young Mothers – Mothers giving birth at 16 years or younger have an increased potential of developing cervical cancer compared with mothers who delivered their first newborn after they were 24 years old.
  • Contraceptive Drug – Studies indicate that long-term use of oral contraceptive medications can slightly increase the potential risk of developing cervical cancer.
  • Acquired Other STDs (Sexually Transmitted Diseases) – Women who have been infected by other sexually transmitted diseases including gonorrhea, chlamydia, or syphilis have an increased potential of developing cervical cancer.

Cervical Cancer Symptoms

Women with cervical cancer during the early developing stages will typically not experience any symptoms. Because of that, it is crucial to have routine cervical smear tests to better detect the disease while effective treatments can stop cancer from growing. The most common symptoms experienced by women suffering from cervical cancer include:

  • Bleeding between menstrual cycles
  • Bleeding after sexual intercourse
  • Discomfort or pain during sexual intercourse
  • Post-menopausal bleeding
  • Smelly vaginal discharge
  • Pelvic pain
  • Bloodied vaginal discharge

Diagnosing Cervical Cancer

Early detection of cervical cancer saves lives. The American Cancer Society and other cancer research authorities believe that women should begin the screening process for cervical cancer no later than 21 years of age or within the first three years after their first sexual encounter if younger. While the screening is not designed to detect cancer, it can isolate abnormal changes in cervix cells that are known to eventually become cancerous.

The diagnostician can perform an HPV / DNA tests to determine if the woman is infected with any form of HPV (human papillomavirus) that is found in nearly every cervical cancer case. The doctor will obtain cells from the cervix and send them off to the lab for testing where the diagnostician will look for strains in the cell DNA looking for high-risk human papillomavirus. A Pap test can also reveal abnormal cells. The doctor may choose other testing options that include:

  • Biopsy –The gynecologist will use general anesthesia to obtain a tiny section of tissue.
  • Blood Tests – Laboratory results can measure the number of blood cells and identify kidney or liver problems.
  • Cone Biopsy – The gynecologist will excise a tiny cone-shaped section of cervix tissue to look for abnormal cells.
  • Colposcopy – The gynecologist will hold the vagina open using a speculum and look through a magnifying lighted colposcope at the cervix.
  • LLETZ – The gynecologist will use a diathermy to remove abnormal tissue to be analyzed in a laboratory setting.
  • Pelvic Ultrasound – Using high-frequency sound waves, the technician can produce an image of the targeted area and display the image on a monitor for viewing.
  • MRI and CT Scan – Cervical cancer cells can be identified using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computerized tomography (CT) images.

Treating Cervical Cancer

The type of treatment the patient receives to cure or manage their cervical cancer will be dependent on various factors including the cancer’s stage, the general health of the patient and their age. The options for treating cervical cancer include surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy (radiation) or a combination of two or more options. Treating the disease in the early stage helps improve success rate before cancer spreads to other areas and organs in the body.

Treatment Options for Early Stage Cancer

Surgical removal of the cancerous area often produces a high success rate of recovery during the early stages of cervical cancer when the abnormal cells are confined or isolated in the cervix. In many cases, the doctor will use radiotherapy (radiation treatment) as a post-surgery option to reduce the potential risks involved in recurrence, when cancer cells unexpectedly returned. Sometimes, the doctor will choose to use chemotherapy to shrink the cervical cancer tumor prior to removing it. However, this procedure is not common.

Treatment Options for Advanced Stage Cancer

Surgery at this stage is usually not a viable or successful option if the abnormal cancer cells have metastasized (spread out) from the cervix. Usually, at this stage, the disease has become invasive and spread to other organs or areas of the body. Treatments at this stage are usually more extensive and require radiation therapy, chemotherapy or combination of both. At the most advanced stage, the doctor will usually recommend palliative therapy to improve the patient’s quality of life and relieve their uncomfortable symptoms.

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