January marks Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, and according to the American Cancer Society, approximately 12,000 new cases of invasive cervical cancer are diagnosed each year. The good news: cervical pre-cancers are diagnosed far more often than invasive cervical cancer, thanks to increased screening with the Pap test. The screening procedure can find changes in the cervix before cancer develops, and it can detect cervical cancer in its early stages, when the disease is most curable.
“Cervical cancer is usually a slow process that starts with abnormal changes known as dysplasia, and eventually cancer cells begin to form and spread more deeply into the tissue of the cervix and surrounding areas,” said gynecological oncologist Yvette Williams-Brown of the Ascension Seton Infusion Center. “There are usually no symptoms, but thanks largely to the increased use of the Pap test, the cervical cancer death rate has declined by more than 50 percent over the last 40 years.”
Four things to know about cervical cancer
Understanding the risk factors and detection methods for cervical cancer are crucial to early detection. Four truths about cervical cancer from the American Cancer Society include:
- Cervical cancer tends to occur in midlife: Most cases are found in women younger than 50 but it rarely develops in women younger than 20. Often, older women do not realize that the risk of developing cervical cancer is still present as they age. More than 15% of cases of cervical cancer are found in women over 65.
- There are usually no symptoms: There are usually no symptoms of cervical cancer, and, left undetected, cervical cancer was once a major cause of death for American women. The best way to find cervical cancer early is to have regular screening with a Pap test. Being alert to any signs and symptoms of cervical cancer can also help avoid unnecessary delays in diagnosis.
- Several risk factors increase the risk of developing cervical cancer: The most important risk factor for cervical cancer is infection by the human papillomavirus (HPV), a group of more than 150 viruses. Other risk factors include smoking, having a weakened immune system, being overweight, and having a family history of cervical cancer.
- Early detection greatly improves the chances of successful treatment: Today, a test to detect HPV is often used as a follow-up when abnormalities are detected on a Pap smear. It can also be used as a screening test on its own, and, in one recent study, it was nearly twice as effective as the Pap test in detecting early cervical cancer. Anti-cancer vaccines have been found effective in preventing the two strains of HPV most frequently found in cervical cancer. Your primary doctor or gynecologist often can do the tests needed to diagnose pre-cancers and cancers and may also be able to treat pre-cancer.