Cervical Cancer Facts

While cervical cancer was once a common cause of cancer  death among American women, the use of Pap tests  (or Pap smears) for cervical cancer screening has dramatically decreased the incidence in the past few decades. Still, the American Cancer Society estimates that in 2008 11,070 American women developed cervical cancer and 3,870 will die from this disease. Here’s important information that can save lives.

What Is the Cervix?

The cervix is the narrow passageway at the lower end of the uterus (the womb) that connects the uterus to the vagina. The cervix makes the cervical mucus that helps sperm move from the vagina into the uterus. Ordinarily, the cervix stays closed; it opens during labor, allowing the baby to pass through the birth canal. During the menstrual period, blood flows out of the uterus through the cervix as well.

How Cervical Cancer Develops

 Cervical cancer starts with cancerous cells that begin to grow on the surface of the cervix. Cervical cancer grows slowly, and precancerous, or abnormal, cervical cells can usually be detected by a Pap smear long before cancer develops. When cervical cells begin to change from normal cells to abnormal ones, the condition is called dysplasia.

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Dysplasia is not cervical cancer, since dysplastic cells do not spread to nearby tissues the way cancerous cells do. Although dysplasia sometimes goes away without treatment, it may develop into cervical cancer if left untreated.

 Cervical Cancer and HPV

Scientists now know that there is a connection between HPV, or human papilloma virus, and cervical cancer. But while many women develop HPV infections, relatively few with HPV will develop cervical cancer.

“There is very strong evidence that you have to have chronic HPV infection” to develop cervical cancer, says Marcela G. del Carmen, MD, MPH, clinical director of the Gillette Center for Gynecologic Oncology at the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.

If you have HPV, it’s even more important to get regular Pap tests. “If you are getting screened, you detect precancerous changes by the Pap test,” Dr. del Carmen says.

Cervical Cancer: Common Risk Factors

“Women who don’t get screened are the ones who are at highest risk,” says del Carmen. She adds that women who have weak immune systems (due to HIV infection, for example) and those who smoke  are at higher risk of developing cervical cancer.

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Here are other risk factors to be aware of and talk to your doctor about:

  • You have chalmydia, a common sexually transmitted disease.
  • You eat few fruits and vegetables.
  • You are overweight.
  • You take oral contraceptives (birth control pills).
  • You have had multiple full-term pregnancies.
  • Your mother or sister had cervical cancer.
  • Your mother took a drug called diethylstibestrol while pregnant with you.

Whether or not you have risk factors for cervical cancer, it is important for every woman to have regular Pap tests. A Pap test can detect precancerous changes in the cells of the cervix before they become cancer, and early detection means a much better chance of survival. Talk to your doctor about how frequently you should be tested. It’s a fast and painless test that could save your life.

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