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What is Cervical Cancer by Diane Romero

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Cancer occurs when there is an uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the body.  These cells can form a mass of tissue called a tumor.  Cervical cancer is a cancer that starts in the tissues of the cervix.  The cervix is the lower part of a woman’s uterus – it connects the uterus to the vagina.  The cervix is part of a woman’s reproductive system so cervical cancer affects the reproductive system.

According to a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost all instances of cervical cancer are caused by some form of the Human Papillomavirus (HPV).  This virus, HPV, is transmitted during sexual contact and it is the most commonly transmitted of all STDs (sexually transmitted diseases).  It is so prevalent that most sexually active persons end up carrying this virus.  However, in most cases, HPV disappears without causing any harm.  Unfortunately, if the virus survives for a long period it may trigger cellular changes that lead to cervical cancer as well as cancer in other body parts such as the vulva, the vagina, the penis, the anus, the mouth, and the throat.  Based on the study results, approximately 33,400 cases of HPV-related cancers were detected annually within the U.S. between 2004 and 2008.  Cervical cancer was the most prevalent, at an annual rate of twelve thousand cases.  Approximately four thousand women will die each year in the U.S. as a result of cervical cancer.

There are two approaches to pursue in trying to avoid cervical cancer.  The first is to try and minimize the risk of HPV infection.  The second is to undergo regular cervical cancer screening tests so that any cancerous cells are detected as soon as possible.  These are not mutually exclusive courses of action and both should be pursued by individuals that have had sexual contact.

According to the National Cancer Institute, the rate of annual HPV infection in the U.S. has climbed to approximately six million infections.  The recommendations to avoid the transmission of HPV are the same as for most other sexually transmitted diseases.  Sexual abstinence is the only sure way to avoid HPV infection.  The chances of HPV transmission are minimized if individuals limit their sexual relations to long-term, monogamous partners and if condoms are consistently used during each sexual encounter.  Even with routine usage, condoms do not fully protect against HPV transmission because condoms do not cover all areas that could be potentially infected by HPV.  Limiting the number of sex partners and having sexual relations with partners that have had no or few prior sex partners also helps to reduce the risk of HPV transmission.

During the last several years the Food and Drug Administration has approved two vaccines for the prevention of HPV infection.  These two vaccines are highly effective against the HPV types that lead to cervical cancer.  The vaccines are recommended for girls before they have had their first sexual contact.  They are recommended for girls that are eleven or twelve years old and may be given to girls as young as nine years old.  Gardasil is made by Merck and it protects against four HPV types.  Cervarix is made by GlaxoSmithKline and it protects against two of the HPV types.  Both vaccines require a series of three injections over six months.  It is important to note that, although highly effective, these vaccines do not protect against all HPV infections.  Consequently, routine cervical cancer screenings are still recommended even for women who have had a prior vaccination.

The second general approach to avoiding cervical cancer is to undergo regular cervical cancer screening tests.  Two types of tests may be performed during a cancer screening.  The first is a Pap test, where the doctor scrapes cells from the cervix and surrounding areas and the cells are forwarded to a lab for analysis.  The second test is a specific test to determine if HPV is present in the samples sent to the lab.  Pap tests are recommended for women beginning at age 21 and every three years thereafter until age 65.  Testing for the presence of HPV is not recommended for women under the age of 30.  For women between the ages of 30 to 65 who would like to increase the testing interval, the combination of a Pap test and an HPV test is recommended every five years.  For women older than 65 who are not considered to be a high risk for cancer and have had adequate screening tests before age 65, no further screening for cervical cancer is recommended.

Unless cervical cancer is detected during a medical examination, it is very difficult for a woman to realize she suffers from cervical cancer.  During its early stages, cervical cancer does not cause any discomfort and does not exhibit any other signs or symptoms.  It is only during the advanced stages of the cancer that vaginal bleeding, vaginal discharge, pelvic pain, and pain during intercourse may appear as symptoms.  Based on individual circumstances, advanced cases of cervical cancer are treated through surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation treatments.

Of all types of cancers found in females, cervical cancer is the easiest to prevent.  However, prevention requires attention to the steps required to minimize HPV infection, as outlined above, and routine screening tests.


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 American Cancer Society.  (2013).  HPV and Cancer.  Retrieved March 21, 2013, from  http://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancercauses/othercarcinogens/infectiousagents/hpv/hpv-and-cancer-info

Annals of Internal Medicine.  (2013).  Screening for Cervical Cancer: U.S. Preventive Services Task Force Recommendation Statement.  Retrieved March 21, 2013, from http://annals.org/article.aspx?articleid=1183214

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  (2013).  Cervical Cancer.  Retrieved March 21, 2013, from http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/cervical/

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  (2013).  Human Papillomavirus (HPV).  Retrieved March 21, 2013, from http://www.cdc.gov/hpv/whatishpv.html

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  (2013).  HPV-Associated Cancers Statistics.  Retrieved March 21, 2013, from  http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/hpv/statistics/index.htm



National Cancer Institute.  (2013).  What You Need To Know About Cervical Cancer.  Retrieved March 21, 2013, from http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/wyntk/cervix/page3




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