Reduce Your Cervical Cancer Risk with Screenings and Early Treatment



According to the National Cancer Institute, cervical cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women between the ages of 35 and 54. The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates that approximately 14,400 women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with some type of cervical cancer in 2021. In Michigan, more than 380 new cases of cervical cancer will be diagnosed this year.

Those are scary statistics, but there’s good news. With regular screenings, cervical cancer is the most preventable of all gynecological cancers. It’s the only cancer with a screening test and a vaccine. And it’s highly curable with early treatment.

Here are a few things to know about cervical cancer risks, screenings, treatment, and prevention.

What is Cervical Cancer?

As its name implies, cervical cancer begins in the cervix – the narrow end of the uterus that leads to the vagina. Two main cancer types may develop from cells lining the cervix:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma: begins in the thin, flat cells that line the cervix
  • Adenocarcinoma: begins in cervical cells that make mucus and other fluids

Thankfully, these cancers don’t appear out of nowhere. They typically develop gradually – first as pre-cancerous cells that grow into cancer over time.

Cervical Cancer Risk Factors

All women are at risk. But especially those who carry the human papillomavirus (HPV). The most common risk factors for cervical cancer include:

  • HPV Infection: Most cervical cancers are caused by an infection from certain types of HPV. There’s no cure for HPV, but it’s a common virus and there are treatments.

  • Age: ACS reports the average age of women diagnosed with cervical cancer is 50. However, these cancers are rarely found in women who are regularly screened before age 65. As women age, many don’t realize their risk is still present.

  • HIV Positive: Women carrying the HIV virus are more likely to develop cervical cancer due to weakened immune systems.

  • Smoking: If you smoke, your risk of developing cervical cancer nearly doubles. Smoking inhibits the body’s ability to build immunity and clear HPV from your body.

“We see high rates of tobacco use here in northern Michigan,” said Patty Davis, Advanced Practice Clinician in Munson Medical Center’s Gynecologic Oncology department. “Any of the usual risk factors for cervical cancer are greater for someone choosing to smoke.”

Cervical Cancer Signs and Symptoms

Early symptoms of cervical cancer may be hard to detect. But there are a few telltale signs. Those include:

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding between menstrual periods, during intercourse, or pelvic exam
  • Unusual vaginal discharge, typically watery or with foul odor
  • Pelvic or back pain during intercourse
  • Increased menstrual bleeding

These symptoms should not be ignored and you should speak with your family doctor or gynecologist. Showing any of these signs doesn’t mean you have cervical cancer, but they may be evidence of a health issue that should be addressed.

And better yet, consider making regular screenings a part of your health care plan.

Cervical Cancer Screening and Prevention

When pre-cancerous cells are identified, they can be treated before cancer forms. So the number one action you can take to reduce your cervical cancer risk is to maintain a routing screening schedule.

Types of screening include:

  • HPV Tests: A simple procedure that collects and examines sample cells from the cervix. If the HPV virus is present this can identify those with a greater risk for developing cervical cancer.

  • Pap Tests: A similar procedure to the HPV test that looks for evidence of pre-cancerous cell development.

  • HPV Vaccines: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends vaccination for girls and boys aged 11 to 12. However, the vaccine can be administered within the range of 9 to 26 years of age depending on the patient.

Screening is recommended for women of average risk between the ages of 21 and 65. Women aged 21 to 29 should receive a Pap test every three years. Women aged 30-65 should be screened every three years with a Pap test, or every five years with a high-risk HPV (hrHPV) test alone, or every five years with a combined hrHPV and Pap test.

Cervical Cancer Treatment

If cervical cancer is found, Munson Healthcare offers a coordinated approach to care that varies based on your specific need.

After testing and consultations are complete, your gynecologic oncologist will explain the type, stage, and characteristics of your cancer and discuss treatment. You may be referred to a radiation oncologist depending on your needs and care plan.

Invasive cervical cancer is generally treated with surgery or radiation combined with chemotherapy.

Advanced forms of the disease may be treated with chemotherapy alone. Targeted chemotherapy is also an option for women with cervical cancer that has spread, is recurrent, or persistent.

Make a Plan for Proper Screening

Thankfully, cervical cancer is curable with early diagnosis and treatment. Regular exams and Pap tests are the most important steps you can take to prevent the disease.

“If you’re 26 or younger make sure you’re immunized against HPV,” Patty said. “Get regular health exams and Pap smears as recommended. Live a healthy lifestyle by eating fruits and vegetables and partake in regular exercise. And don't smoke! Or if you do smoke, keep trying to quit.”

If you’re at high risk, or if you experience symptoms similar to those described above, the first step is to speak with your doctor. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services also offers cancer testing for eligible residents. Lack of health insurance, poor experiences with physicians, or discrimination fears should not interfere with routine cancer screenings.

You can find more resources and information on cervical cancer here.

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