What You Should Know About Cervical Cancer

cervical cancer

Each year in the United States, nearly 11,500 new cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed in women, and in Pennsylvania approximately 1 out of 164 women will develop cervical cancer in her lifetime.

Cervical cancer starts in the cells of the cervix, which is the lower end of the uterus and connects the uterus to the vagina. Practically all cervical cancers are caused by long-lasting infection with high-risk types of human papillomavirus (HPV).

It is not uncommon for people who are sexually active to become infected with HPV at some point in their lives. Most infections go away on their own and do not cause cancer, but when a high-risk HPV infection lasts for years, it can lead to changes in the cervical cells.

Cervical cancer typically develops slowly, with the cells in the cervix undergoing changes known as dysplasia. These abnormal cells may become cancerous, growing and spreading more deeply in the cervix.

What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?

In the early stages of cervical cancer, patients do not usually experience any symptoms. It is only after the cancer begins to spread that most patients will have symptoms, which may include the following:

  • Vaginal bleeding after intercourse
  • Vaginal bleeding after menopause
  • Vaginal bleeding between periods
  • Periods that are heavier or longer than normal
  • Vaginal discharge that is watery and has a strong odor or that contains blood
  • Pelvic pain or pain during intercourse

Symptoms of advanced cervical cancer, when it has spread to other parts of the body, may include the above symptoms as well as the following:

  • Difficult or painful bowel movements or bleeding from the rectum when having a bowel movement
  • Difficult or painful urination or blood in the urine
  • Dull backache
  • Swelling of the legs
  • Pain in the abdomen
  • Fatigue

How is cervical cancer detected?

Screenings can help detect cervical cancer and precancerous cells that may develop into cervical cancer in the future. Most medical organizations suggest beginning screening for cervical cancer at age 21. Your physician can help you determine the best screening schedule for you.

“A Pap test, also called a Pap smear, is the recommended screening for cervical cancer, and when screened regularly, it can be highly effective,” said Dr. James V. Lieb, DO, a board-certified oncologist and hematologist at Penn Highlands Oncology/Hematology in the Tyrone region. “Pap tests can detect precancerous cells, leading to treatment before cancer even develops. They are typically used in combination with a test for HPV.”

Oncologists may also diagnose cervical and other gynecological cancers using CT scans, MRIs, transvaginal ultrasounds or colposcopy, which is an exam that uses special equipment to give your physician a magnified view of your cervix, vagina or vulva.

How is cervical cancer treated?

“Cancer treatment plans vary from patient to patient, but many patients with gynecological cancer will be prescribed radiation therapy,” said Dr. Lieb. “Radiation therapy uses powerful energy beams, from X-rays, protons or other sources, to destroy cancer cells. It is often combined with chemotherapy as the primary treatment for cervical cancers that have grown beyond the cervix.”

Small cervical cancers that have not spread beyond the cervix are often treated with surgery. Surgical options may include removal of the cancer only, removal of the cervix (trachelectomy) or removal of the cervix and uterus (hysterectomy). The best option depends on the size and stage of the cancer, and whether the woman is considering a future pregnancy.

Cervical cancer can be highly preventable, and even curable, when it is caught early. Nearly all cervical cancers can be prevented by HPV vaccination, routine cervical cancer screening and appropriate treatment as needed. Talk to your primary care provider about the best preventive care options for you.

The Hahne Cancer Centers at Penn Highlands Healthcare provide comprehensive care for a wide range of cancers, including cervical cancer. Treatments at Penn Highlands include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Penn Highlands’ oncologists see patients in Brookville, Clearfield, DuBois, Huntingdon, Monongahela, Punxsutawney, St. Marys and Tyrone, where patients can also receive outpatient diagnostic testing, chemotherapy, immunotherapy and hematology services. To learn more, visit www.phhealthcare.org/cancercare.