Cervical cancer was once a leading cause of death among American women. That changed when the Pap smear became widely available. This test allowed doctors to find precancerous changes in a woman’s cervix and treat them. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), mortality from cervical cancer declined by almost 70 percent between 1955 and 1992.
The ACS estimates that in 2012, approximately 12,000 American women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer and 4,200 will die from the disease. Most cancers will be diagnosed in women who are between the ages of 20 and 50.
The uterine cervix is also known as “the mouth of the womb.” It is a hollow cylinder that connects the uterus to the vagina. The uterus is where the fetus grows during a pregnancy.
The surface of the cervix faces outwards into the vagina. It is made up of types of cells different from the lining of the cervical canal. Most cervical cancers start on the surface of the cervix.
Almost all cervical cancers are caused by the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV). There are a number of different strains of HPV. Only certain types are associated with cervical cancer. The two most common types that cause cancer are HPV-16 and HPV-18.
Infection with a cancer-causing strain of HPV does not mean you will get cervical cancer. The immune system eliminates the vast majority of HPV infections. Most people are rid of the virus within two years. However, HPV is extremely common. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than half of all sexually active men and women will get infected during their lifetime.
HPV can also cause other cancers in women and men. These include:
However, the two most common cancer-causing strains of HPV are preventable by vaccine. Vaccination is most effective before a person becomes sexually active. Both boys and girls can be vaccinated against HPV.
The risk of HPV transmission can also be reduced by practicing safe sex. However, condoms cannot prevent all HPV infections. The virus can also be transmitted from skin to skin.
The Pap smear collects cells from the surface of the cervix. These cells are examined under a microscope. Doctors look for evidence of precancerous or cancerous changes. If changes are found, the cervix can be examined using a test called colposcopy. Early lesions can be removed before they cause too much damage.
Routine Pap smears have greatly reduced the number of deaths from cervical cancer.
Routine Pap smears are important. Caught early, cervical cancer is very treatable. Precancerous changes are often caught and treated before cervical cancer can develop. Testing and treatment stops cervical cancer before it starts. According to the ACS, the majority of American women who are diagnosed with cervical cancer have either never had a Pap smear or not had one in the last five years.
The five-year survival rates for cancers that are caught early are excellent. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for larger, invasive cancers. When the cancer has spread, or metastasized, within the pelvic region, five-year survival drops to 57 percent. With distant metastases, it drops to 16 percent, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI).