Cervical cancer is probably one of the most common forms of cancer in young women. Cervical cancer is the cancer of the cervix, which connects the uterus and the vagina. The endocervix is the part of the cervix that is closest to the uterus while the ectocervix is nearer to the vagina. Most cases of cervical cancer begin in the cells at the transformation zone. This zone is where the two main types of cells in the cervix (squamous cells and glandular cells) meet.
Cervical cancer can be detected early and the best way to find out is to have regular or routine cervical screening tests like the Pap test. Screening tests may also be done in combination with a test for HPV or human papillomavirus.
For the past couple of years, the Pap test has been effective in discovering precancerous conditions in the cervix before it develops into an invasive type of cancer. The early detection of cervical cancer is really important as it greatly improves the possibility of a successful treatment. In addition, it can prevent the cells in the cervix to become cancerous cells.
Cervical Cancer Prevention
As cervical cancer starts from a precancerous condition, there are ways to prevent the disease from developing. First, find and treat precancer cells before they grow into true cancer cells and second, prevent the pre-cancer cells.
Not smoking, avoidance of an HPV exposure, and having an HPV vaccine can also be helpful ways to prevent precancer cells from developing.
Detecting Precancer Cells
Having a cervical screening test has been proven to prevent cervical cancer. It is also a way to find precancer cells before they can become true cancer cells. The commonly performed tests to detect precancer cells are the Pap test (also known as Pap smear) and the human papillomavirus (HPV) test.
In a Pap test, sample cells are collected from the cervix. The collected cells will then be sent to the laboratory and will be examined under the microscope. This procedure will find the presence of any precancer cells and cervical cancer as well. The collected cells during the Pap test can also be used for the HPV test. Depending on the nature of the abnormality, the test may have to be repeated every 6-12 months. In the United States, a Pap smear screening is recommended for women starting around 21 years of age and will continue until the age of 65.
If you are HIV-positive or you have a weakened immune system due to chemotherapy, then you may have a higher chance of developing cervical cancer. The Pap test is essential for such people. If your Pap test is normal, then there is nothing to worry about. However, go for another test after three years as part of your routine test.
Most cases of cervical cancer have been found in women who do not undergo regular cervical screening tests. Thus, it is fairly important to have regular screenings to treat or stop cervical cancer before it could actually start.
Smoking increases the chance of developing cervical cancer. Thus, quitting smoking can help prevent the disease from developing.
Avoid Exposure to HPV
Human papillomavirus or HPV is the most common sexually transmitted virus. It can spread during anal, vaginal, or oral sex. It does not have any particular symptom, and it can also be transmitted to people who practice monogamous sex. There are over 100 types of HPV, and 40 of them are sexually transmitted. HPV types 16 and 18 are the primary causes of cervical cancer. HPV is the main cause of cervical cancer, so one of the most important things to do to prevent contracting this virus is to avoid contact or exposure to HPV.
Aside from sexual intercourse, HPV can be passed from one person to another through skin-to-skin contact from a person who is infected by the virus. For example, HPV can be passed through genital-to-genital contact even without intercourse or hand-to-genital contact as long as you are in contact with the infected part of your partner's body.
Get an HPV Vaccine
HPV vaccines are now available, which can protect women from certain subtypes of HPV such as HPV 16 and 18. Other vaccines can also protect against the subtypes of HPV that causes genital and anal warts.
For the vaccine to be effective, it must be given before a woman gets exposed to HPV. The vaccines only work to prevent an HPV infection, not treat it. HPV vaccines are given in a series of shots. A regular screening test is still recommended even if the shots have been completed as no vaccine can provide complete protection against all of the cancer-causing types of HPV.
Use latex condoms if you are sexually active. Using a condom reduces the chances of you contracting the virus. However, it is equally important to understand that HPV can affect the areas that are not covered by a condom. Therefore, using a condom only reduces your chances of getting HPV, not eliminating it. You should also avoid having sex with multiple partners.
What Can Be Done
The government can ensure that almost all health plan covers cervical cancer screening without any additional cost. Other recommendations to address cervical cancer management include:
- Ensuring that all health plans cover the administration of HPV vaccines.
- Doctors and nurses can recommend women as to which screening tests they should go for and when.
- Doctors should make sure that they get their results and apply the corresponding treatment on time.
- Make use of notes to remind women when their scheduled screenings and HPV vaccines are due.
- Women can encourage others to undergo cervical cancer screening.
- Regularly visiting a physician and learning about the screenings.
- Get children vaccinated for HPV.
- Start screening yourself at the age of 21.
- Women ages 21-29 should have a Pap test every three years.
- Starting at age 30, women should do the Pap test every three years, along with the HPV test every five years.
- Women after the age of 65 can stop screening for cervical cancer if they did not have any previous history of cancer.
- Women who had abnormalities in their Pap test should do a follow-up test every six months.