Cervical cancer is a result of abnormal cell growth on the cervix. The cervix is located at the lower part of the uterus that opens into the vagina. Fortunately, cervical cancer can often be cured if it is detected early. The best way to detect cervical cancer in early stages is through routine Pap smears.
Cervical cancer is the third most common cancer in women worldwide. Cervical cancer is much less common in the US due to routine Pap smears recommended by gynecologists.
What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer begins with cancerous cell growth on the surface of the cervix. There are two different types of cells that can grow on the cervix, either columnar or squamous. The majority of cervical cancers originate from squamous cells.
Cervical cancer is a disease that develops quite slowly and begins with a precancerous condition known as dysplasia. Dysplasia is easily detected in a routine Pap smear and is completely treatable. This is why gynecologists strongly recommend for all of their female patients to get routine Pap smears. Most women in the US that have been diagnosed with cervical cancer have not had routine Pap smears or have not pursued treatment after abnormal Pap smear results.
How does cervical cancer develop?
Cervical cancer is caused by human papillomavirus, otherwise known as HPV. HPV is a sexually transmitted disease, although not all types of HPV will cause cervical cancer. Some types of HPV cause genital warts; other types of the virus are asymptomatic.
The danger is in the fact that a woman can have HPV for years and never know it. The virus stays dormant in the body and can cause cervical cancer years later. This is why it is important for a woman to have a routine Pap smear to detect the early stages of cervical cancer and prevent the spread of the disease.
Cervical cancer causes and risk factors
In addition to the main cause of cervical cancer, an HPV infection, there are several other risk factors that contribute to the disease:
- Smoking: Women who are infected with HPV and smoke cigarettes have a higher risk of cervical cancer.
- Weakened Immune System: A person with a weakened immune system or an autoimmune disease has an increased risk of cervical cancer.
- Sexual Partners: Women who have had multiple sexual partners have a higher risk of cervical cancer.
- Birth Control Pills: Women who use birth control pills for five years or longer have a slightly higher risk of developing cervical cancer with an HPV infection. This risk will automatically decrease when a woman goes off of birth control pills.
- Having Several Children: A woman that has had five or more children has a slightly higher risk of cervical cancer if she has an HPV infection.
- DES: DES was a drug given to pregnant women between 1940 and 1971. It can increase the risk of cervical cancer in daughters whose mothers were exposed to the drug during pregnancy.
Having an HPV infection or any of the other risk factors does not indicate that a woman will have cervical cancer. Many women with the above risk factors never develop the disease.
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