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The Importance of Screening: What you need to know about Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer was once one of the most common causes of cancer death for American women, but over the last few decades, the cervical cancer death rate has gone down by more than 50%. Why is this? The increased use of screening tests. Screening can find changes in the cervix before cancer develops. It can also find cervical cancer early on- when it’s small, has not spread, and is easiest to cure.

However for those not vaccinated and not screened regularly, either due to a lack of awareness or insufficient health insurance, cervical cancer can still be a serious, even fatal, illness.

Understanding your risk factors and early signs and symptoms can better increase your chances for prevention and early diagnosis.  

How common is Cervical Cancer?

Each year in the U.S. about 4,000 women die from cervical cancer. By comparison, over 40,000 women die from breast cancer.

Unlike breast cancer, cancer of the cervix has an identified viral etiology. Infection by Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is needed for the development of cervical cancer

Cervical Cancer Risk Factors:

Understanding your risk factors is the first step to prevention of this disease. The most common including:

  • Pregnancy: Women who have had 3 or more full-term pregnancies, or who had their first full-term pregnancy before age 17, are twice as likely to get cervical cancer.
  • Family history: Women with a sister or mother who had cervical cancer are 2-3 times more likely to develop cervical cancer.
  • Sexual history: Certain types of sexual behavior are considered risk factors for cervical cancer and HPV infection. These may include: intercourse before age 18, intercourse with multiple partners and intercourse with someone who has had multiple partners.
  • Smoking: A woman who smokes doubles her risk of cervical cancer
  • Oral contraceptive use: Women who take oral contraceptives for more than five years have an increased risk of cervical cancer, but this risk returns to normal within a few years after the pills are stopped.
  • HPV: Though HPV causes cancer, having HPV does not mean you will get cancer. The majority of women who contract HPV clear the virus or have treatment so the abnormal cells are removed. HPV is a skin infection, spread through skin-to-skin contact with a person who has the virus

Cervical Cancer Symptoms:

More often than not, cervical cancer doesn’t cause obvious symptoms in the early stages of the disease making it more crucial to have routine pap screening. This routine screening checks for any abnormal cells in the cervix so they can be examined and treated early on.

Once cervical cancer is present, the most common symptoms may include:

  • Vaginal bleeding: This includes bleeding between periods, after sexual intercourse or post-menopausal bleeding.
  • Unusual vaginal discharge: A watery, pink or foul-smelling discharge is common.
  • Pelvic pain: Pain during intercourse or at other times may be a sign of abnormal changes to the cervix, or less serious conditions.

Signs of more advanced stages include:

  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Back pain
  • Leg pain or swelling
  • Leakage of urine or feces from the vagina
  • Bone fractures