What is Cervical Cancer?
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.
What Is the Cervix?
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.
Cervical Cancer and HPV
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:
- vulvar cancer
- penile cancer
- rectal cancer
- throat cancer
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
Cervical Cancer and Pap Smear
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.
What Is the Outlook for 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