7 Surprising Facts About Cervical Cancer
- Cervical Cancer Information You May Not KnowThe cervix is the lower portion of the uterus, the part that opens during labor to allow a baby to leave the womb during childbirth. Like other parts of the body, the cervix can be affected by cancer. Because the cervix is so deep inside the body, though, signs of cervical cancer aren’t always obvious, especially in the early stages of the disease. That’s why cervical cancer screening is so important.
Learn more about cervical cancer warning signs, detection and treatment, along with what to know about HPV vaccines that can prevent cervical cancer.
- 1. Cervical cancer used to be the leading cause of cancer death for U.S. women.Before 1960, cervical cancer was commonly fatal. Death rates began dropping after the Pap test became a regular part of women’s healthcare. Initially developed by George Papanicolaou and refined by others, the Pap test allows healthcare providers to detect precancerous and cancerous cells on the cervix—and treat the cancer before it becomes deadly.
According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, death rates for cervical cancer decreased 50% between 1975 and 2016.
- 2. Cervical cancer is caused by a virus.Research in the 1970s and 1980s revealed that certain strains of a common virus, the human papillomavirus (HPV), caused cervical cancer. (In 2008, German scientist Harald zur Hausen won a Nobel prize for his work linking HPV and cervical cancer. More recently, HPV has also been linked to oral and anal cancer and others.)
HPV is spread through sexual contact; according to the American Sexual Health Association, 80% of sexually active people will be exposed to the virus. There are many different strains of HPV. Most strains are not harmful but several strains put the woman at a greater risk for developing cervical cancer. Most individuals clear the infection after developing genital warts or without any problems. But some people do not clear the infection and remain at risk for developing cancer.
- 3. Cervical cancer may not cause any symptoms at first.Generally speaking, cervical cancer develops slowly. Many years can pass between HPV infection and the growth of cancerous cells. (That is one reason why cervical cancer is more common in middle-aged and older women than younger women.) Even then, it’s possible to have cervical cancer without experiencing any obvious signs or symptoms.
Cervical cancer symptoms, including abnormal vaginal bleeding and pelvic pain, may not appear until the cancer has grown and spread. Any woman who experiences abnormal vaginal bleeding should see a qualified healthcare provider.
- 4. Pap tests detect cervical cancer and precancerous changes.During a Pap, your healthcare provider scrapes a few cells from the surface of your cervix; these cells are then analyzed under a microscope. Cancer cells look different than normal cells. If cancerous cells are present, additional testing will guide treatment. If precancerous cells are present (cervical dysplasia; these cells look abnormal, but are not fully cancerous), doctors can intervene. In some cases, the doctor and patient will decide to monitor the cells over time; in other cases, the precancerous cells are removed. Removing precancerous cells may prevent the development of cervical cancer.
- 5. Free and low-cost cervical cancer screening is available.All health insurance plans should cover cervical cancer screening. If you do not have medical insurance or are under-insured, you may be eligible for free or low-cost cervical cancer screening through the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program.
According to the CDC, you may be eligible if your yearly income is at or below 250% of the federal poverty limit and you are between ages 21 and 64. Older or younger women may also be eligible depending on risk factors.
- 6. If caught early, cervical cancer is highly treatable.According to the American Cancer Society, the five-year survival rate for cervical cancer that’s confined to the cervix is 92%. (In other words, 92% of people who are diagnosed with cervical cancer that has not spread will be alive five years after diagnosis.) Physicians use a variety of techniques to surgically remove cervical cancer, including loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP), cryosurgery (freezing the cancer cells), and cone biopsy. Hysterectomy is another treatment for cervical cancer, especially for affected women who do not plan on having children in the future. Other treatments for cervical cancer include chemotherapy and radiation.
- 7. Most cases of cervical cancer can be prevented.HPV vaccination is highly effective. According to the National Cancer Institute, Gardasil and Cervarix (two commercially available HPV vaccines) provide nearly 100% protection against infection with HPV types 16 and 18, the HPV strains most commonly associated with cervical cancer. The CDC currently recommends HPV vaccination of preteens—both boys and girls—beginning at age 11 or 12. (Ideally, the vaccine should be given before an individual becomes sexually active.)
Annual cervical cancer screening via Pap tests can also prevent cervical cancer, by allowing doctors to detect and treat precancerous lesions before they turn into cancer.
7 Surprising Facts About Cervical Cancer