Cervical cancer is a form of cancer which develops in the cervix. The cervix is the lower part of the uterus which connects to the vagina. The cause of cervical cancer is thought to be various strains of human papilloma virus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection. The human papilloma virus can stay in a woman’s body without causing harm due to the fact that the immune system suppresses it. However, in some women, the virus plays a role to the process in which the cells in the cervix become cancerous.
Although cervical cancer is the third most common type of cancer in women, early detection can help women win the battle against cervical cancer. Physicians recommend that when women turn 21, they should begin screening for precancerous changes and cervical cancer.
Pap Test – Also known as Pap smear. This test involves scraping and brushing the cells from the cervix which will be examined for abnormalities. Pap test is used to detect abnormal cells in the cervix, which include cancer cells, as well as cell changes that could increase risk for cervical cancer.
HPV DNA Test – During this test, cells will be collected from the cervix. These cells will then be tested for infection from any type of HPV. This screening test is an option for younger women wherein their Pap test results are not normal and for women who are 30 years old and above.
Cervical cancer may also be suspected if a woman has symptoms like pain during sexual intercourse or abnormal vaginal bleeding.
Making a Diagnosis of Cervical Cancer
For women with suspected cervical cancer, the first step that physicians will take is a thorough physical examination of a woman's cervix. During examination, a colposcope (a special instrument which magnifies cells) is used to check and for abnormal cells. A sample of the cells in the cervix will be taken by using punch biopsy or endocervical curettage. The sample that is taken will then be sent off to the laboratory for testing. Electrical wire loop and cone biopsy may also be used as a diagnostic procedure.
- Punch Biopsy - Involves pinching off small samples of cervical tissue through the use of a sharp tool.
- Endocervical Curettage - Involves scraping a tissue sample from the cervix through the use of a curet. The curet is a small spoon-shaped instrument.
- Electrical Wire Loop - A small tissue sample is obtained by using a thin, low-voltage electrical wire. This procedure is performed with the patient under local anesthesia.
- Cone Biopsy - Is a procedure allowing the physician to get samples from the deeper layers of the cervix. This is done under general anesthesia.
If a woman is diagnosed to have cervical cancer through the tests mentioned, further tests are needed to know the extent of the cancer. Staging exams include imaging tests and visual examination of the bladder and rectum. Imaging tests such as X-ray, MRI, CT scans, and PET scans can help the physician to determine if the cancer has spread beyond the cervix. The cancer’s stage is an important factor in determining and deciding the appropriate treatment.
Stages of Cervical Cancer
Stage I – The cancer is restricted in the cervix.
Stage II – Cancer is present on the cervix and upper part of the vagina.
Stage III – Cancer is already in the lower portion of the vagina or inside the side wall of the pelvis.
Stage IV – Cancer has metastasized (spread) to other organs such as the bladder, rectum, liver, lungs, and bones.
Know Your Cancer
Cancers of the reproductive system are not uncommon in women. As women approach their thirties and forties, they become more prone to ailments and conditions of the system. Keeping a tab on health care routine is the best measure to take before the damage is done. The first and foremost step of understanding cancer is getting to know the symptoms that could be the warning signs or call to action. These include abnormal vaginal discharges or bleeding during or after intercourse, pain during the process, or radiating aches to the pelvic region. If one or more of these occur, medical intervention is surely needed. A thorough physical examination is done and some tests are run to rule out or confirm the findings. Colposcopy, biopsy, and pap tests are some of the ways of diagnosing the cancer. Whatever the case may be, after reaching a certain age, it is advisable for women to get routine check-ups done and take extra precautions to avoid or detect this third most common cancer in women. Cervical cancer affects the cervix in the initial stages, but may spread to other regions of the body over a period of time such as the vagina, pelvis, and gradually to other organs like the bladder, lungs, or even the bowel.
Dealing with the Diagnosis
As cumbersome as it may sound, additional checkups are performed to steer clear of areas the infection might have likely spread to. Chest x-rays, CT scans, pelvic tests, blood tests, MRI, and cervical screenings almost always go hand in hand. Samples and fluids from the cervix are extracted, urine samples are tested and blood results are examined to check if the body has been infected. All these help to diagnose and detect the exact stage of cancer and the extent to which it has spread. This gives a good control on the medication, time in hand, and procedures to be followed so as to minimize the damage to the body. Go by the prescription and recommendation of the treating doctor. In most cases, the women diagnosed with cervical cancer are immediately referred to gynecologists to begin the treatment without any delay. The treatment could last for months or years, once diagnosed, and that is why patience, perseverance, and cooperation is required from the patient’s end. Diagnosis may just be the beginning to a long-term treatment. The journey may be challenging and hard, but for those who must undertake such a journey, it is important to be strong, composed, and stay positive.