Cervical Cancer: Prevention & Treatment
According to the American Cancer Society, there will be more than 12,000 new cases of cervical cancer diagnosed this year in the United States alone, making it the third most common cancer in women. The disease forms slowly, but has very few symptoms in early stages. Every January, we observe Cervical Cancer Awareness Month to help educate Arizona women about the disease and risk factors leading to it.
Below is a Q&A session with two leaders in cervical cancer screening, treatment and research: Dr. Luci Chen, Arizona Center for Cancer Care, and Carol Bafaloukos, Planned Parenthood Arizona.
Q: What is cervical cancer?
Chen: Cervical cancer is slow-forming, initially an almost symptomless cancer that starts in a woman’s cervix, which is the opening that connects the uterus to the birth canal.
Q: Who gets cervical cancer?
Chen: Cervical cancer isn’t picky — when it comes to women, at least. It can occur in ANY women, most often after the age of 30.
Q. What is the MAIN CAUSE of cervical cancer?
Bafaloukos: Far and away, human papillomavirus (HPV) — one of the most common sexually transmitted infections in the United States. It is estimated that more than half of adults will get HPV. There are 120 different types of HPV, more than 30 of which can infect the genitals. It is estimated more than 70 percent of cervical cancer cases stem from HPV.
Q. Are there other causes?
Chen: HIV and smoking are also linked to the disease.
Q. What are the symptoms of the disease?
Chen: In early stages, there aren’t any. That is why it is so critical to get regular Pap tests, which can detect the disease in its earliest forms. As the disease progresses, symptoms can include abnormal vaginal bleeding, unusually heavy vaginal discharge, painful intercourse or urination.
Q. What are the screening tests available for HPV and cervical cancer?
Bafaloukos: The obvious test is the Pap smear, which should be done annually starting no later than age 21. Through the Pap, the doctor can look at the cells on the cervix and detect even slight changes. Another test is the actual HPV test.
Chen: If a doctor finds any of the above suspicious, other tests, including a biopsy and colonoscopy, can be used can help determine if the woman has cervical cancer. It is very important to know the extent of the cancer — how deeply it has invaded tissues. The treatment can be quite different depending upon this.
Q. How can one reduce her risk of cervical cancer?
Bafaloukos: By reducing your risk of HPV. This can be done by getting the HPV vaccine, ensuring annual Pap smears, limiting your number of sexual partners, using condoms and quitting smoking.
Q. What are the treatments options for cervical cancer?
Chen: Often, the treatment is surgery, coupled with radiation. Chemotherapy is often used as well.