The cervix is the lower, narrow end of the uterus (womb). The cervix connects the vagina (birth canal) to the upper part of the uterus.
Cervical cancer is highly preventable in most Western countries because screening tests and a vaccine to prevent human papillomavirus (HPV) infections are available. When cervical cancer is found early, it is highly treatable and associated with long survival and good quality of life.
Be HPV Aware
The most common form of cervical cancer, squamous cell carcinoma, is caused in almost all cases by a virus known as the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is spread through sexual contact with someone who has the virus. Not all types of HPV cause cervical cancer. In fact one can be infected with HPV for quite a long time and not even be aware of it because no symptoms are present.
However the more high-risk HPVs, in particular HPV types 16 and 18, cause virtually all cervical cancers. (They also cause most anal cancers and some vaginal, vulvar, penile, and oropharyngeal cancers.)
That said, even if you are infected with the high risk strain, it still doesn’t meant that a cancer will develop as many times the infection goes away on its own after a year or so. However where a persistent HPV infection is present and causing cell changes it is wise to monitor and have it treated so that it doesn’t progress further.
According to the National Cancer Institute, there are other risk factors which, combined with a high risk HPV infection, could increase the risk of developing cancer. These are:
- Having a weakened immune system
- Having many children (for increased risk of cervical cancer)
- Long-term oral contraceptive use (for increased risk of cervical cancer)
- Chronic inflammation
Regular pap smears are now frequently combined with HPV testing and such cervical exams can detect the presence of HPV even when no symptoms are present.
This again emphasises the importance of regular PAP smears!
However for cervical adenocarcinoma the path can be a little different. This is a type of cervical cancer that is becoming more common and it does not necessarily show up in a smear as it often can be higher and deeper in the cervix.
While squamous cell can be detected in its pre cancerous form, adenocarcinoma is usually detected only when the cancer is developed to a stage 1 or more.
For this reason regular HPV testing at the time of each smear is the most effective way to monitor cervical health and the susceptibility to either type of cancer, but particularly for cervical adenocarcinoma.
If you have any of the symptoms mentioned in the chart above, especially abnormal bleeding, it is important to have a thorough check up, preferably with a gynaecologist, regardless of whether or not you have had a recent negative smear.
We will be doing a more in depth piece on this in the coming weeks so when that is ready we will post a link here also.
Starbrydge Articles on Cervical Cancer
Inside Knowledge campaign’s cervical cancer fact sheet [PDF-874KB]
Excellent information here at Patient.co.uk
Cancer.gov: HPV and Cancer
Ireland: Cervical Check.ie