Cervical cancer gradually develops when the healthy cells lining the cervix change and grow out of control. These changes lead to the formation of a mass, which is called a tumor. The tumor can either be benign (a tumor that does not spread) or malignant (cancerous and spreads to other parts of the body).
In cervical cancer, there is an abnormal change of cells inside the body. Abnormal cells can either go away without treatment or can become cancerous. Often called as dysplasia or the abnormal growth of cells, is the first step to the occurrence of cancer. The abnormal cells, which are also known as precancerous tissues must be removed to prevent the development of cancer. The precancerous tissue may be eliminated without harming the healthy tissues adjacent to it. However, in some cases, a hysterectomy must be performed to remove the precancerous tissue, thus, preventing cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer occurs when the precancerous tissue turns into actual cancer cells and spreads deeper into the cervix. Most cases of cervical cancer develop in women who are in their 30s and 40s. It is rare in women aged 25 years and below.
Symptoms of Cervical Cancer
During the early stages of cervical cancer, women may not experience any symptoms at all. However, as the tumor grows, the symptoms start to appear. In some cases, symptoms do not appear until cancer has metastasized to other parts of the body.
Most commonly, the first symptom of cervical cancer is abnormal vaginal bleeding, which involves the following:
- Postcoital bleeding (bleeding after sexual intercourse)
- Intermenstrual bleeding (bleeding between regular periods)
- Vaginal bleeding after menopause
Other early symptoms of cervical cancer include pain or discomfort during sex and a vaginal discharge with a foul smell. An abnormal vaginal discharge can be characterized as watery, pink, brown, or bloody.
All these symptoms can be caused by other common conditions. That is why it is necessary to see a doctor when any of these symptoms start to develop. Most importantly, the earlier the disease is discovered, the higher the chance that cancer is cured.
Advanced Stage of Cervical Cancer
Advanced cervical cancer is when cancer has spread beyond the cervix to other parts of the body. The symptoms include:
- blood in the urine
- weight loss
- urinary incontinence
- loss of appetite
- lack of energy
- bone pain
- pelvic pain
- swelling of one leg
- changes in bladder and bowel habits
- severe side or back pain
The Pap test is one of the most reliable and efficient screening methods of cervical cancer. A routine Pap test is important to check for abnormal changes in the cervix. Regularly having this test can help monitor the condition and treat the problem as early as possible. Another screening test is the HPV test, which is used to screen women for the high-risk HPV strains.
In the recent years, the number of cases diagnosed with cervical cancer has declined. The reason is that cervical cancer can be prevented by having routine screening tests as well through vaccination.
Dealing with the Symptoms
Ignoring the symptoms of cervical cancer is the worst thing to do. The stages tend to progress soon and the condition only worsens if left untreated. Thus, it is important to be aware of the symptoms and notice any abnormal signs or activities regarding your cervical health. Any case of cervical bleeding, prolonged menstrual bleeding with the menses being heavier than usual, changes in the vaginal discharge, post-menopausal bleeding, and pain in the pelvis and other related areas may not necessarily be cancer.
However, these symptoms cannot be ignored as the chances of cervical cancer in women showing such symptoms is high. Accepting that there is a problem or an abnormal condition is the first step. Acknowledging one's health problem should be followed by visiting the doctor. Based on a doctor's advice, take the diagnostic tests first to confirm or rule out the presence of cancer. Treatment, additional tests, and drugs are prescribed based on your medical history, age, health, the stage you are in, and your recent test results.
In most cases, one test leads to another and the patient may have to undergo a series of tests and treatments to fight the battle against cancer. As demoralizing as it may be, there is no second way of doing this. Dealing with the symptoms and side effects should be coupled with medical intervention. Cervical cancer involves management at all levels, right from the emotional, psychological, medical, and family aspects, to coping mechanisms, readiness to take a continuous treatment, and lifestyle adjustments.
Diagnostic Tests for the Symptoms
When women are sure of the symptoms of cervical cancer, they must take up the following tests in addition to physical examination, as suggested by the treating doctor:
- A Pap test is done to collect samples from the outer lining of the vagina or cervix or both.
- A procedure called colposcopy is performed where a colposcope is inserted into the body and areas such as the vagina, cervix, and surrounding tissues are highlighted and checked by the doctor.
- A biopsy is a common method of testing the tissues for any known cancer. In this procedure, a part of the tissue is scraped off the region and examined. Variations such as the cone biopsy or cervical conization are also performed during the initial stages of cervical cancer.
- In most cases, the doctors will run a thorough check of the region around the pelvis, which includes the ovaries, fallopian tubes, pelvis, bladder, cervix, etc. for any abnormal changes.
- An X-ray or a special X-ray to view the internal organs and structures around the pelvic region is sometimes performed to confirm any structural changes.
- A CT scan gives a complete 360-degree picture of the internal structures, thereby supporting the facts, changes, treatment, etc. to be followed.
- Another common procedure is the laparoscopy, in which a small cut is made to the body and a tube is inserted to examine the region around the abdomen and surrounding tissues.
Knowing about cervical cancer at this point in life is very important. Women need to be aware of this life-threatening disease so they can seek proper medical guidance without hesitation.