Cervical cancer is a form of cancer that affects the cells in the cervix. It is also known to be the third most common cancer in females. It is a treatable condition if detected at its early stage. Cervical cancer is also the most common cancer type in females who are under 35 years old. There are various forms of this cancer with squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma being the two most common. Just like with other types of cancer, cervical cancer can metastasize to other regions of the body, which can include the intestines, liver, bladder, and lungs.
The development of cancer begins from a single cell, which is thought to be damaged or has undergone alterations within itself. As a result, the cell becomes abnormal and multiplies on its own. For cervical cancer, this abnormality is commonly caused by a prior infection with the human papillomavirus.
HPV or the human papillomavirus is the main cause of cervical cancer. There are over 100 types of HPV and there are about 40 strains that are passed on through sexual contact. HPV 16 and 18 are commonly involved in many cases of cervical cancer. Usually, an infection with any of these HPV strains doesn’t cause any symptoms.
Sexually active women may acquire at least one type of the virus in their lifetime as HPV is very common. Although in most cases, HPV is harmless even if it can stay inside the body for quite some time. Moreover, it usually fades away on its own. There are other types of HPV that can cause genital warts, thus the term "genital warts virus." Fortunately, the genital warts are not responsible for the cell changes that could lead to cervical cancer. For some women, the cervix and its healthy cells are affected by the strains of HPV that could develop into cancer cells after many years.
Most of the patients who have the HPV infection do not get cervical cancer. In most women with HPV, the infection lasts for only some time. About 90 percent of patients with HPV infection are cleared in two years’ time. A minuscule percentage cannot get rid of the virus and are thought to suffer persistent infections. Such female patients are at a much higher risk of contracting abnormal cells and cancer. Some strains of the virus can initiate the mutation of healthy cervical cells into abnormal ones. In just a handful of patients, a few of these abnormal cells could result in cervical cancer. This process occurs over an extended period of a few years to a few decades.
An increased risk of the occurrence of cervical cancer is seen in women who started having sex while they were still young and those who have multiple sexual partners. Other risk factors of cervical cancer include not having a vaccine against HPV, a suppressed immune system, smoking, and genetics.
Most cervical cancer cases are seen during a patient's midlife. 50 percent of the patients have ages between 35 to 55 years. Most women under 20 are unaffected by this type of cancer, and only about one-fifth of the patients above the age 65 are diagnosed. That is the reason why doctors recommend that women regularly get themselves screened for cervical cancer until they are at least 70 years old. The doctor might even insist that some patients get screened even beyond that age.
The HPV vaccine has been introduced in the recent years. The vaccine has been effective in the prevention of cervical cancer. The effectiveness of the HPV vaccine is higher in women who received the vaccine while they are young and not sexually active compared to adults.
Risk Factors for Cervical Cancer
There are other factors that can increase the risk of developing cervical cancer. They include:
- Smoking – Women who smoke are two times more likely to develop cervical cancer than those who do not. Cigarettes contain chemicals that can be carried in the bloodstream, which can affect the healthy cells in the body. Studies show that if a woman has an HPV infection and is a smoker, there's a higher risk for cervical cancer to happen. Research indicates that women who smoke heavily for many years are at a much higher risk of getting lesions than women who don’t smoke or just smoke occasionally. A woman who already has an HPV infection can exponentially increase her chances of getting cervical cancer through smoking.
- Poor or weakened immune system – If the immune system is compromised, the body will not be able to fight the HPV infection and the abnormal proliferation of cells in the cervix, making the patient susceptible to cervical cancer. A healthy immune system is vital in stopping the cancer cells from growing and spreading. A patient with a weak immune system can cause the pre-cancer growths to turn into a full blown cancer at a much faster rate. Patients who take immunosuppressant medications to treat their autoimmune conditions, as well as those women who have had organ transplants are also in a very high-risk category.
- Combined oral contraceptive pill (COCP) – A possible link has been observed with COCP and the occurrence of cervical cancer. Moreover, if COCP has been taken for more than eight years, the possibility of developing cervical cancer is slightly increased. Those patients who have been using oral contraceptives for more than five years have the chance of contracting this cancer thrice, and the women who have been using them for more than ten years have at least four times the risk.
Multiple full-term pregnancies are also a major factor in contracting cervical cancer. In the case of patients who have been infected with HPV and those who have given birth seven or more times have four times the risk of developing cervical cancer. This scientific data is in comparison to those women who have not been pregnant at all. Since pregnant women might have a weaker immunity, it is thought that they are more prone to contracting an HPV infection.