Symptoms and Diagnosis of Cervical Cancer
The American Cancer Society estimates that 14,480 women in the United States will get a cervical cancer diagnosis in 2021, and another 4,290 are expected to die due to the disease.
Cervical cancer occurs when cells in the cervix—an organ located at the bottom of the uterus and connects to the vagina—mutate and grow out of control, causing harm to healthy cells.
Know the warning signs
Cervical cancer doesn't typically present any signs or symptoms until the disease has already progressed to its advanced stages. But while cervical cancer was once one of the most common causes of cancer-related deaths, the survival rate has dramatically improved in recent years. Such enhanced outcomes are mainly due to the widespread adoption of screening tests and a vaccine for the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted virus that can lead to cervical cancer.
According to the Mayo Clinic, while some causes of cervical cancer remain unknown, various strains of HPV play a significant role in most cervical cancer cases.
HPV is a common virus that's spread through unprotected sex. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that almost all sexually active people will have HPV at some point in their lives if they don't get vaccinated. A notable fact is that compared to the number of people with HPV, relatively few women end up developing cervical cancer as a result.
Most of the time, the body's immune system naturally stops HPV from causing harm, but in a small percentage of people, the STD can survive for years. Long-lasting HPV infections can contribute to the process that causes some cells in the cervix to become cancerous, according to experts.
There's no doubt that preventive health screenings play a crucial role in the early detection of cervical cancer. That said, being aware of the symptoms of the disease is still important so you can consult with your doctor right away if you notice anything out of the ordinary.
One of the most common warning signs of cervical cancer is abnormal vaginal bleeding. This includes bleeding after intercourse, in between periods or after menopause. Please note, though, that just because you have an irregular period doesn't necessarily mean that you have cervical cancer.
Watery and bloody vaginal discharge that has a foul odor is another potential cause for concern. Cervical cancer can also cause pain in the pelvis and pain during sex. If you experience any of these issues, be sure to talk to your doctor about it, because these could be symptoms of cervical cancer.
Getting diagnosed with cervical cancer
Many women don't experience any symptoms of cervical cancer at all, yet they receive an abnormal Pap smear test result. If this happens to you, your doctor will likely recommend you undergo a colposcopy to further examine your cervix. But don't panic. Researchers have found that a majority of colposcopies don't lead to identification of cancer—but they're still an important step for early detection in some women.
So what is a colposcopy? Well, it's similar to a Pap test, but it also involves the use of a magnifying lens for closer inspection of any abnormal cells in the cervix. If during your colposcopy your doctor decides an even closer look is needed, the next step may be a cervical biopsy, which may involve the removal of a piece of sample tissue for testing or the complete removal of the abnormal tissue.
There are three main types of cervical biopsies: a cone biopsy, an endocervical curettage and a punch biopsy. Which one a doctor recommends will vary depending on the case.
A cone biopsy is performed using a laser or a scalpel to remove a larger, cone-shaped piece of tissue from the cervix. For an endocervical curettage, an instrument called a curette is used to scrape the lining of the endocervical canal. And during a punch biopsy, a doctor uses a circular blade similar to a paper hole puncher to remove a small piece of sample tissue from the cervix for testing. Depending on the amount of abnormal tissue present, multiple punch biopsies may be taken at once. How long it takes for you to recover from a cervical biopsy will depend largely on which procedure you undergo and whether it requires you to be put under anesthesia. It's common to experience mild or moderate cramping and some bleeding in the days following a biopsy.
Once your tissue sample has been examined and your lab results come back, your doctor will schedule a follow-up appointment to discuss the results. At this point, you will find out more about how much the cells in your cervix have changed.
If the results show there has only been a low-grade change in the cells of the cervix, then those cells are unlikely to become cancerous. Moderate- to high-grade changes in cervical cells indicate a higher risk of cervical cancer, at which point your doctor will discuss prevention and treatment options with you.
Another screening test used to detect cervical cancer is the HPV DNA test. During this test, cells collected from the cervix are tested for HPV infection, particularly for strains of the virus that are most likely to lead to cervical cancer.
While there is no cure for the virus itself, knowing that you have it, or that you don't, can help to inform your detection strategies, meaning your doctor may recommend more frequent screenings so any abnormal cell changes in the cervix can be detected and treated right away. Catching precancerous and cancerous cells early makes the chances of successful treatment much higher. So while it may not be your favorite appointment of the year, be sure not to skip your annual Pap smear test—it could save your life.