Cervical Cancer: What You Should Know
What is cervical cancer
- Cervical cancer is cancer of the cervix. It happens when cells in the cervix become abnormal and grow in an uncontrolled fashion and eventually form a growth (tumour).
- In most cases it takes 10 – 15 years for cell changes to go from normal to abnormal to cancer.
- If not caught early, cancer cells gradually spread into the surrounding tissues and may spread to other parts of the body.
The cervix is another name for the neck of the womb. It is the opening to the womb from the vagina. The womb and cervix are part of the female reproductive system, which is made up of:
- The vagina
- The womb
- The cervix
- The ovaries and
- The fallopian tubes
The cervix forms a canal, which joins the top of the vagina to the lower part of the womb. This is called the endocervical canal.
The cervix is divided into two parts:
- The ectocervix
- The endocervix
The ectocervix is the outer surface of the cervix which can be seen by the doctor during an examination of the cervix. It is covered with a layer of flat thin cells that look like skin and are called squamous cells. They can become cancerous, leading to a squamous cell cervical cancer. This is the most common type of cervical cancer.
The endocervix is the opening of the cervix that leads into the uterus (womb). It is covered with glandular cells which secrete mucus and they the can also become cancerous, leading to a less common type of cervical cancer called adenocarcinoma of the cervix.
The Transformation Zone
The part of the cervix where cervical cancer is most likely to develop is called the transformation zone. This is the area just around the opening of the cervix where these two cell types meet (ectocervix and endocervix).
Causes of cervical cancer
- Ireland has one of the highest rates of cervical cancer in Western Europe
- On average 284 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year in Ireland and 90 women die from the disease
- Cervical cancer mostly affects women aged 30 to 50
- It is very rare under age 25
- In women aged 25 to 39 years, cervical cancer is the second most common cause of death due to cancer
Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV)
Risk factors which may increase a woman's chance of developing cervical cancer include:
- Sexual history -Being sexually active in early teenage years
- Smoking - Women who smoke are twice as likely to develop cervical cancer than those who don’t smoke
- A weakened immune system - If you have had an organ transplant or a HIV infection, you are at higher risk of cervical cancer
- Medical history - if your birth mother took the hormonal drug Diethylstilboestrol (DES) while pregnant with you. Talk to your doctor about the associated risks
Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) infection
Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection is very common. Approximately 80% of sexually active people will get a HPV infection during their lifetime.
HPV can be spread by:
- Any kind of skin-to-skin contact of the genital area
- Vaginal, oral or anal sex
- Sharing sex toys
There are more than 100 different types of HPV. Around 12 types of HPV are a high-risk for causing cervical cancer and are called ‘high risk’ HPV types.
Two high-risk types cause 7 out of 10 cervical cancers, HPV 16 and 18.
Other types of HPV can cause genital warts. These are called 'low-risk' types. Low-risk types do not cause cancer.
As well as cervical cancer, HPV can cause anal, vaginal, vulval, penile and some types of mouth and throat cancers.
For most people, the immune system clears the HPV infection within two years. But sometimes this doesn't happen. If you have a long-lasting (persistent) infection with a high-risk type of HPV, you are more at risk of developing cervical cancer.
This is why it is so important to attend regular cervical screening when it is due.
To learn more about cervical screening, click here.
Symptoms of Cervical Cancer
Early cervical cancers and pre-cancerous cell changes don't usually have symptoms.
Not everyone diagnosed with cervical cancer will have symptoms, that's why it's important to attend regular HPV cervical screening.
The most common symptoms of cervical cancer include:
- Unusual vaginal bleeding
- Bleeding between periods
- Bleeding during sex
- Bleeding at any time after the menopause
- Pain or discomfort during sex
- Vaginal spotting or unusual discharge
- Pain in your pelvis (anywhere between your belly button and top of your thighs)
There are many other conditions that cause these symptoms. Most of them are much more common than cervical cancer but do contact your doctor if any of the above symptoms sound familiar, just to be sure.
Screening is the first line of defence we have again cervical cancer. For more information on HPV screening and the diagnosis and treatment of cervical cancer, click here.