Treatment of Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer occurs when cervical cells mutate, grow exponentially and harm healthy cells. The disease affects the cervix, which is the organ at bottom of the uterus that connects the uterus to the vagina. Cervical cancer was once one of the most common causes of cancer-related deaths in America. Fortunately, survival rates for cervical cancer have significantly increased in recent decades thanks to the rising popularity of the Pap test and other screening procedures.
The most common treatments for cervical cancer are surgery, radiation and chemotherapy—and sometimes a combination of the three. Deciding which treatment path to take depends largely on how advanced the disease is and the patient's overall health as well as her preferences.
And treatment is an issue that will be on thousands of women's minds this year. The American Cancer Society estimates that 14,480 women in the United States will get a cervical cancer diagnosis in 2021, and almost 4,300 are expected to die of the disease.
Surgical options for treatment
Treatment for cervical cancer in the early stages typically involves surgery, although which operation the patient undergoes—a few options are available—depends on the size of the cancer, as well as whether the patient is likely to consider becoming pregnant in the future.
Women who have relatively small, early-stage cervical cancer may be able to undergo a cone biopsy, a procedure in which a cone-shaped piece of cervical tissue is removed, leaving the rest of the cervix intact. This option may be particularly suitable for women who want to get pregnant in the future.
Another surgical option to treat cervical cancer, a trachelectomy, involves the complete removal of the cervix as well as the surrounding tissue. This surgery is also used to treat early-stage cervical cancer but may be desirable for cases in which the cancer is more widespread in the cervix, rather than being confined to one small area. As with the cone biopsy, a trachelectomy leaves the uterus intact, leaving open the possibility of a future pregnancy for the patient.
And then there are situations in which a hysterectomy may be necessary. According to the Mayo Clinic, most early-stage cervical cancers are treated with a radical hysterectomy, which involves the removal of not only the cervix and the surrounding lymph nodes, but also the uterus and part of the vagina. While this option eliminates a patient's ability to become pregnant in the future, it can cure early-stage cervical cancer and prevent the disease from ever coming back.
According to medical experts, some women are now opting for a minimally invasive hysterectomy rather than the traditional hysterectomy. One advantage of the minimally invasive version of the procedure is that it can be performed through just several small incisions in the abdomen instead of one large incision, which requires a lengthier recovery time.
However, according to the Mayo Clinic, patients should keep in mind that some research has found that the minimally invasive hysterectomy may be a less effective treatment than a traditional hysterectomy.
If you're trying to figure out which surgical option is best for you, be sure to consult your doctor to determine which path aligns best with your health needs and plans for the future.
Surgery isn't the only treatment option for cervical cancer. Other ways to attack the disease include radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy. Sometimes these alternative treatments are used for advanced cervical cancer; in other situations, they may be used alone or in conjunction with surgery to treat early-stage cervical cancer.
Radiation therapy treats cervical cancer by using high-powered energy beams to kill cancerous cells. According to the American Cancer Society, radiation therapy is usually employed to treat cervical cancer that is advanced but still confined to the general area of the cervix. Patients who get radiation therapy often undergo chemotherapy as well. Radiation therapy is also sometimes used after a cervical cancer patient has surgery, in order to reduce the risk of a recurrence.
Chemotherapy, a drug that is typically administered orally or intravenously, can be used to treat cervical cancer by killing and slowing the growth of cancer cells. Patients with locally advanced cervical cancer often get a combination of chemo and radiation therapy.
If you have advanced cervical cancer, your doctor may recommend targeted therapy or immunotherapy. Targeted therapy is a drug treatment that kills cancer cells by targeting existing weaknesses in them, while immunotherapy is a drug treatment that employs your own immune system to help fight off the cancer. According to the Mayo Clinic, immunotherapy is typically reserved for cases in which cervical cancer is advanced and unresponsive to other treatments.
Cervical cancer treatments are most effective when the disease is caught early. So even though those yearly "well-woman" checkups may not be your favorite appointments of the year, be sure not to skip them—they could potentially save your life.
At the end of the day, getting a cervical cancer diagnosis is scary. And so is determining which treatment option is right for you, especially since some options may affect your ability to become pregnant in the future.
When deciding how best to move forward, be sure to lean on your support system, consider your own preferences and, of course, consult a trusted medical professional. Talk to your doctor about getting palliative care, too, which is a specialized form of medical care that is intended to help patients with a serious illness get relief from pain and other symptoms.
Typically, a palliative care team is set up to work with you, your support system and your other doctors to ensure that you are fully supported in every aspect of your health during cancer treatment. Research has shown that palliative care can help patients not only feel better but live longer, too. As you begin treatment, remember that you're not alone.