What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is a disease that every woman should be aware of, as it is the fourth most common cancer among women in the world. Women between the ages of 35 and 45 are affected by it the most.
However, the good news is that cervical cancer is the only type of cancer that can actually be prevented! It can be done by regularly visiting a gynecologist and taking all necessary tests.
The thing about cervical cancer is that it does not appear suddenly. The first signs are so-called precancerous lesions that appear on the surface of the cervix.
A doctor can remove those lesions almost painlessly. If done in time, the lesions will not be able to develop into cervical cancer.
Vaccination of adolescent girls against HPV (the virus that causes most cases of cervical cancer) and regular cervical screenings can reduce the chances of cervical cancer by 80–90%.
Cervical cancer causes
Cervical cancer is a disease caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) in 99% of all cases. In over 75% of cases, cervical cancer is caused by high-risk HPV types 16 and 18.
Most people get infected with HPV at some point in life, mainly through sexual contact, although HPV can also be transmitted by skin-to-skin contact and sex toys.
In about 90% of cases, the body’s immune system fights off HPV on its own.
There are only about 15 types of the virus that, under certain conditions, may cause precancerous lesions, which eventually can degenerate into cancer.
To detect precancerous cervical changes in a timely manner, a woman should visit a gynecologist regularly for cervical screening, especially if a high-risk HPV type has been detected.
Cervical cancer symptoms and signs
Cervical cancer normally doesn’t manifest itself at early stages, so a woman doesn’t feel any different.
Cervical cancer symptoms and signs in advanced stages are:
- abnormal vaginal bleeding (for example, between periods, after sex, or after a gynecological examination)
- pain during intercourse or urination
- vaginal discomfort or foul-smelling discharge
- pain in the back, pelvic area, or legs
- weakness, weight loss, lack of appetite
The simplest and most effective way to detect cervical cancer is to visit a gynecologist regularly for cervical screening that includes the Pap test, human papillomavirus (HPV) testing and/or other methodologies to reveal precancerous lesions and the disease at the earliest stage.
Cervical cancer risk factors
Any woman can get cervical cancer, but some women are at higher risk because of a variety of factors.
Most common cervical cancer risk factors are:
- having the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), which causes nearly all cases of cervical cancer
- not getting screened
- smoking (smoking weakens the immune system, making it harder to fight off HPV infections)
- age over 30 (it takes years for HPV infections to cause changes in the cervix)
- having been treated before for cervical cancer or for abnormal cells that may become cancerous
- having multiple sex partners
- conditions that make it hard for the body to fight off infections (e.g., AIDS, etc.)
- giving birth three or more times
If you have any questions about the risk of cervical cancer, please ask your doctor for advice. Timely participation in vaccination and screening programs can help avoid cervical cancer.
Content created in association with UNFPA, the United Nations reproductive health and rights agency.