According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 80,000 women in the United States were diagnosed with a form of gynecological cancer in 2009 – 12,000 of whom were diagnosed with cervical cancer.
This represents a significant decline over the past 40 years, largely attributed to broader awareness, regularly scheduled PAP smears and medical advancements. However, it is still important to learn more about the disease and continue taking preventive steps to ensure long-term health and well-being.
Okey Osuebi, M.B.B.S, Mayo Clinic Health System obstetrician and gynecologist, answers some common questions about cervical cancer to provide women with tips for prevention and healthy living.
Q. What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is a form of cancer that develops in the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina (the cervix). It usually begins in the lining of the cervix, where pre-cancerous cells typically associated with the human papilloma virus (HPV) can form. Although HPV may progress into cervical cancer (or other genital cancers), it’s important to note that genetics, environment and lifestyle choices influence the development of cervical cancer.
Q. What are the symptoms?
Cervical cancer often produces no symptoms in the early stages, but certain signs may indicate that the disease has progressed. These include:
Vaginal bleeding between menstrual periods, after intercourse or post-menopause
Watery, bloody vaginal discharge that may be heavy and have a foul odor
Pelvic pain or pain during intercourse
Heavier or longer menstrual periods
Q. What are the risk factors?
The major risk factors for cervical cancer include:
Many sexual partners and/or early sexual activity. Most cases of cervical cancer stem from HPV, which is often transmitted sexually, so the greater number of sexual partners, the higher the risk of HPV infection.
Other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). The presence of other STIs leads to heightened risk of HPV.
Smoking. According to the American Cancer Society, women who smoke nearly double their risk for cervical cancer.
Poor diet. Diets lacking in fruits and vegetables multiply the risk of cervical cancer. Additionally, poor diet leads to obesity, which also negatively impacts an individual’s risk profile.
Family history. There is expanded risk for cervical cancer if the mother or sister was diagnosed with cervical cancer.
Q. How can I prevent cervical cancer?
The best way to prevent cervical cancer is to address the risk factors proactively:
Practice safe sex with minimal partners
Quit smoking; consult a health care provider or use one of the many free smoking cessation programs (e.g. 1-800-QUIT-NOW)
Eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains while limiting saturated fats and sugar
Page 2 of 2 - Schedule PAP smears, combined with an HPV test, beginning at age 21
Discuss the HPV vaccine with a health care provider, particularly for young females (ages 9-26)
Knowledge and preventive measures are essential to protection and early detection, allowing HPV and other pre-cancerous cells to be treated before they develop into cancer. As always, please speak with a health care provider regarding any questions or concerns