According to the World Health Organization (WHO), cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women — an estimated 570,000 women were diagnosed worldwide in 2018. Despite this seemingly large number, cervical cancer is actually one of the most preventable and curable forms of cancer with early detection and treatment. This is why it’s important to understand what symptoms to look out for and what preventative measures one can take.
The correlation between HPV and Cervical Cancer
The most common cause of cervical cancer is a long-lasting infection with certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is spread through sexual contact. According to the CDC, at least half of sexually active people will have HPV at some point in their lives - often without knowing it, as most strains of HPV are asymptomatic and the infection tends to leave the body within two years (your body's immune system gets rid of it naturally). However, in some people, the infection persists and can lead to health problems, such as genital warts. A small proportion of certain strains of HPV infections can persist and progress to cervical cancer.
What are the symptoms to look out for?
The early onset of cervical cancer often does not result in any signs or symptoms. However as the cancer progresses, certain symptoms that affect more than just the cervix may begin to appear. Here is a list of some of the most common symptoms associated with cervical cancer:
Vaginal bleeding after sexual intercourse, between periods, or after menopause
Watery, bloody vaginal discharge that may be heavy and have a foul odor
Pelvic pain, or experiencing pain during intercourse
If you experience these symptoms, it is recommended that you discuss them with a healthcare professional immediately, so that appropriate tests can be performed to determine whether these are caused by cervical cancer. In some cases, these symptoms are linked to other reproductive health issues such as pelvic inflammatory disorder and endometriosis. Therefore, seeing a doctor will allow you to understand your health status better, even if you test negative for cervical cancer.
What are the preventative measures I can take?
There are two screening tests that can help in the early detection of cervical cancer, namely the pap test, also known as a pap smear, and the HPV test. The pap test screens for pre-cancer cells, in particular, for cell changes in the cervix that could develop into cancer cells if left untreated. On the other hand, the HPV test, as the name suggests, screens for the HPV virus.
It is generally recommended to do a pap test between the ages of 21 to 29, once every three years, and a HPV test between the ages of 30 to 65, once every five years. However, it is best to discuss these screening options with a healthcare provider who can better determine the time between tests based upon previous results, family history, and other contributing factors. People who have undergone a hysterectomy with removal of the cervix no longer need to undergo pap tests, as the absence of a cervix eliminates the risk of cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer can also be prevented through vaccination. The HPV vaccine can prevent most cases of cervical cancer if given before the person is exposed to the virus.
Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable and curable forms of cancer. The key to guarding against this disease is early detection and treatment. Therefore, knowing the symptoms to look out for, and taking preventive steps, such as getting vaccinated and tested regularly, is extremely important to lowering your chances of developing cervical cancer.