Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer diagnosed in women worldwide. 85% of the worldwide deaths from this type of cancer occur in underdeveloped or developing countries.
The cervix connects the uterus to the vagina. Cervical cancer often begins in the cells on the surface of the cervix and progresses to deeper cells and nearby tissues. These cells may break away from a tumor and invade your lymph system, blood vessels, bones, and other organs causing further spread.
The majority of cases are caused by a history of having the human papillomavirus (HPV).
Many females assigned at birth will come into contact with HPV at some point in their lives, but it will clear on its own with help from the immune system. However, HPV that does not clear may lead to cervical cancer. Smoking along with having a history of HPV can further increase your risk.
A difficult factor is that the early stages of this cancer often do not cause any symptoms. The most common symptoms that usually show in later stages are abnormal bleeding such as bleeding between menstrual periods, heavier menstrual periods, bleeding post menopause, and vaginal bleeding post intercourse or pelvic exams. Other symptoms may include pain during sex, pelvic pain, and increased vaginal discharge.
Since many cases occur due to inadequate screening, the best way to prevent it is through screening tests and getting the HPV vaccine before becoming sexually active around the ages of 9-26. Even if you have received the vaccine, it is important to know that you still need screening. You also need screening if you have had a hysterectomy and the cervix was not removed or you have had a hysterectomy with a history of cervical cancer and/or moderate to severe cervical changes.
The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists (ACOG) has made recommendations for screening. You can view these guidelines in a great flow sheet graphic here: Cervical Cancer Screening
Exceptions to these guidelines that require more screening include a history of HIV, weakened immune system, history of cervical cancer, and exposure to diethylstilbestrol before birth.
It is also important to note, an annual OBGYN well women exam should still be done every year despite not being due for cervical screening.
To improve access to cervical screening in underdeveloped and developed countries you can check out the following nonprofit organizations:
- Grounds For Health
With an Open Learning Mind,
National Cancer Institute. 2012. What you need to know about cervical cancer. [Brochure]. Retrieved from: https://permanent.fdlp.gov/gpo46270/PDF%20version/cervix.pdf.
US Preventive Services Task Force. Screening for Cervical Cancer: US Preventive Services Task Force Recommendation Statement. JAMA. 2018;320(7):674–686. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.10897
Small, William, Bacon, Monica A, Bajaj, Amishi, et al. Cervical cancer: A global health crisis. Cancer. 2017;123(13):2404-2412. doi:10.1002/cncr.30667.