No matter who you are or your walk of life, you’ve likely been touched closely by cancer. It can happen to friends, family, co-workers, neighbors — and it can happen to you. If you or someone you love has recently been diagnosed with cervical cancer, your mind may be reeling, wondering what does it all mean and what to do next. What’s the best form of treatment? Will it affect your fertility? Or, if you’ve had a false alarm due to an abnormal pap, you may be wondering what are the symptoms, or even better, how to prevent it from happening.
What is cervical cancer?
The cervix is the lowest, narrowest portion of the uterus. Cervical cancer starts in the cells of the cervix. The disease does not appear overnight. Instead, normal cells gradually turn precancerous. For some women, the pre-cancerous cells clear away on their own. For others, it can become cervical cancer. The process can sometimes last for years, often not showing any symptoms during the early stages.
Cervical Cancer Causes
Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by a sexually transmitted infection (STI or STD) called human papillomavirus (HPV) — which is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States. It can be transmitted by either vaginal, anal, or oral sex, as well as from skin-to-skin contact.
Other risk factors include having a weakened immune system, chlamydia, being overweight or obese, smoking, the long-term use of oral contraceptives, and a diet that doesn’t include enough fruits and vegetables.
Cervical Cancer Symptoms
During the early stages, a woman with cervical cancer won’t experience any symptoms. Once the disease progresses, common symptoms include:
- Pain during intercourse
- Vaginal bleeding after intercourse
- Pelvic pain
- Light bleeding between periods
- Bleeding after menopause
If the cancer has metastasized to other areas of your pelvis, additional symptoms may include:
- Blood in urine
- Swollen abdomen
- Back pain
- Pain when having bowel movements
- Blood in rectum after bowel movements
Diagnosing Cervical Cancer
The first step in diagnosing cervical cancer is by a pap smear. If your test results show abnormal cells, your doctor will order additional screenings. If cancer is confirmed, your doctor will run a cystoscopy and a proctoscopy to determine whether the condition has spread to other parts of the body. Your doctor may also order imaging screenings — such as x-rays, an MRI, or CT scan, to see if the cancer cells have reached any other organs.
Treatment of Cervical Cancer
There are several stages of cervical cancer. Each of them signifies where in your body the disease is present. Treatment will depend on the stage of the illness as well as your age. Options may include:
- Radiation therapy. Radiation is used to either kill cancer cells or to keep existing tumors from growing. It can be done via an external machine, as well as a catheter.
- Conization. During this surgery, the surgeon removes cone-shaped tissue from the cervix. It can be done with a scalpel or via laser surgery.
- Radical hysterectomy. During this surgery, the surgeon will remove the uterus, cervix, ovaries, fallopian tubes, part of the vagina, and nearby lymph nodes. While there’s a minimally invasive method of doing the surgery, the traditional method tends to yield better results and has a higher survival rate.
- Pelvic exenteration. The surgeon removes the bladder, lower colon, and rectum. The patient will need artificial openings for urine and bowel movements to flow from the body into a collection bag.
- Bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy. This surgery is performed to remove both ovaries and fallopian tubes. Sometimes, the procedure is performed on women who don’t have cancer yet, but who have a high risk of developing it.
- Chemotherapy. Drugs are inserted into the patient’s bloodstream to stop cancer cells from dividing and tumors from growing. The downside is that chemotherapy can also cause damage to healthy cells.
Stages of Cervical Cancer
Stages I, IA, IA1, and IA2: The cancer is in its early stages, and either localized exclusively in the cervix or the cervix and the uterus. The cancer is so small, it can only be seen with a microscope — or about half an inch deep and a fourth of an inch wide.
Stages IB, IB1, and IB2: The cancer can be seen without a microscope and is larger than four centimeters. It has spread deeper than a fifth of an inch into connective tissue of the cervix, and may have spread to nearby lymph nodes, but not to distant sites.
Stages II, IIA, IIA1, IIA2, and IIB: The cancer has spread beyond the cervix and uterus, but hasn’t reached the pelvis or the lower part of the vagina. It’s larger in size, but has not spread to distant sites.
Stages III, IIIA, and IIIB: The cancer has spread to the pelvis and lower parts of the vagina. It may be blocking ureters — the tubes that carry urine from the kidneys to the bladder, causing kidney problems.
Stages IVA and IVB: The cancer has spread to the bladder, rectum, or to distant sites beyond the pelvic region, such as the lungs, bones, liver, or lymph nodes.
Cervical Cancer Prevention
Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable forms of cancer — thanks to advanced screenings and vaccinations. One of the most important things you can do to lower your risk of cervical cancer is to schedule annual appointments with your OB-GYN for a well-woman exam. They include a pap smear — its sole reason is to gather cells from your cervix and send them to a lab to verify the existence of precancerous cells. This process is crucial, since early detection gives you a greater chance of surviving the illness. In fact, a pap can detect cell abnormalities before they get a chance to turn into cancer. This gives you the chance to obtain life-saving treatment.
Other ways of lowering the risk of developing cervical cancer include getting the HPV vaccine, limiting your number of sexual partners, practicing safe sex, and quiting smoking.
Even if you already have cervical cancer, in its early stages, the condition is treatable and has a good chance of being cured.
Does cervical cancer affect fertility?
Most treatments for cervical cancer cause scarring on the cervix and uterus. It’s also possible for the ovaries to stop working after radiation therapy. For those who received a later stage diagnosis, depending on the type of surgery used to control the cancer, it would be impossible to become pregnant or carry a baby to term, since most — or all — of the reproductive organs have been removed. That being said, if the condition was detected early, treatment may not cause a loss of fertility.
Contact Us at OB-GYN Women’s Center
At OB-GYN, we aim to establish trusting relationships with our patients. If you have any questions about your reproductive health, don’t be afraid to ask. We are here to help you.
Contact us to schedule an appointment. We’ll answer all of your questions and strive to procure the best treatment for you.