Cervical cancer begins in the uterine cervix, which is the lower end of the uterus that contacts the upper vagina. The fourth most common cancer in women, cervical cancer is responsible for 7.5% of female deaths owing to cancer in the world. Various strains of a sexually transmitted virus known as the human papillomavirus (HPV) play a role in causing most cases of cervical cancer.
Symptoms of cervical cancer
The Early stage cervical cancer generally produces no signs and symptoms. More advanced strains of cervical cancer generally showcase the following symptoms:
• Pelvic pain
• Bloody, watery vaginal discharge that may be heavy and possess a foul odour
• Vaginal bleeding after intercourse
• Bleeding during menstrual cycles
• Urinary problems due to blockage of ureter or a kidney
• Pain during intercourse
Causes of Cervical Cancer
Most cervical cancers are caused due to prolonged infection caused by one of the human papillomaviruses (HPVs). HPV infections are very common and not everyone with an HPV infection develops cancer. Out the 100s of HPV, only certain strains have been linked to cancers.
HPV infection spreads through skin to skin contact or through sexual contact. Studies have shown that a majority of people acquire an HPV infection at some point in their lives, although it typically gets resolved on its own. Whenever the HPV infection persists, it may cause precancerous changes in the cells of the cervix.
Most precancerous changes occur in the cervix at the transformation zone since these cells normally undergo constant change.
Certain risk factors put some women in the high-risk zone for developing cervical cancer. These include the following:
• HIV infection
• Tobacco smoking
• Immune system suppression
• Long-term use of oral contraceptives
• Multiple sexual partners
Cervical Cancer Screening
The American Cancer Society recommends regular cervical cancer testing for all women between the ages of 21 and 65. Early screening and detection of cervical cancer can go a long way in preventing future complications, as well as aiding the early arrest of the growth of cervical cancer.
Certain steps may be followed for the prevention of cervical cancer in high-risk groups. These include the following:
• Get vaccinated against HPV: HPV vaccinations are available and recommended for women from the age of 9 to 26 years. Gardasil is a recombinant human papillomavirus vaccine [types 6, 11, 16,18] and has been proven to be the most effective vaccine for the prevention of a bunch of strains of the HPV.
• Quit smoking
• Practice safe sex: the use of condoms, sexual involvement with fewer sexual partners and the delay of intercourse reduce your chances of contracting cervical cancer.
• Get routine Pap tests done: a pap test is the most reliable method in the detection of cervical cancer. A Pap test can detect precancerous conditions in the cervix at a very initial stage, thus aiding in the early detection and thus, treatment, of cervical cancer. Pap tests are generally recommended for women over 21 years of age, to be performed at a gap of every two years.
Treatment of Cervical Cancer
The treatment of cervical cancer generally depends on many factors, the most important one being the stage at which the cancer is detected.
• Surgical removal of cancerous mass
In early-stage tumours, surgery is a vital method for the treatment of cervical cancer. A Hysterectomy, that is the removal of the uterus, may be performed to remove the cancerous cells from the body. However, in cases involving younger women and smaller tumours, other procedures may also be performed in order to preserve the ability to carry a pregnancy.
These procedures include a trachelectomy, i.e. the removal of the cervix and the upper part of the vagina, and a cone biopsy, which involves the removal of the inside of the cervix which acts as the site where most tumours begin.
Chemotherapy is generally recommended together with radiation therapy and may be advised before or after the treatment of cancer. A repeat occurrence of cervical cancer warrants the recommendation of chemotherapy.
• Radiation therapy
Another common therapy for the treatment of cervical cancer is radiation therapy. Two different types of radiation therapies are available for use. These include the following:
◦ Brachytherapy, which is a form of radiation therapy and involves the insertion of radioactive sources near a tumour for a specific period of time, is a common form of radiation therapy used to treat cervical cancer.
◦ External beam radiation therapy is another kind of radiation therapy used, which involves the administration of radiation therapy from an outside source of radiation.
• Targeted therapy refers to the administration of drugs that have been specifically developed to target and interrupt the cellular process that is involved in the promotion of the growth of cancer cells in the cervix. Such drugs inhibit the ability of tumours to form new blood vessels, which is essential for the growth of tumours.