It's a Girl Thing
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Cervical cancer develops on the cervix which is the lower part of the uterus. This is why cervical cancer is a girl thing. Cervical cancer is caused by HPV but not all types of HPV cause cervical cancer. It is important for females to have a regular Pap test in order to find this type of cancer early. A Pap test can find changes in cervical cells before they turn into cancer which is the best way to prevent this type of cancer.

What is Cervical Cancer?

Cervical cancer begins in the lining of the cervix. The cervix is the lower part of the uterus (womb). The uterus has two parts. The upper part, called the body of the uterus, is where the fetus grows. The cervix, in the lower part,  connects the body of the uterus to the vagina, or birth canal. Cancer of the cervix does not form suddenly. First, some cells begin to change from normal to pre-cancer and later to cancer. This can take a number of years, although sometimes it happens more quickly. Having certain risk factors can sometimes speed the progression from pre-cancer to cancer. For many women, low-grade precancerous changes may go away without any treatment. Persistent pre-cancerous changes may need to be treated to keep them from becoming true cancers. There are two main types of cancer of the cervix. About 85-90 percent are squamous cell carcinomas. The other 10-15 percent are adenocarcinomas. If the cancer has features of both types it is called mixed (or adenosquamous) carcinoma. There are also a few other rare types of cancer of the cervix. Cervical cancer used to be one of the most common causes of cancer death for American women. Between 1975 and 2007 the number of deaths from cervical cancer decreased dramatically, with mortality rates in 2007 at less than half of what they were in 1975. The main reason for this change is the use of the Pap test to find cervical cancer early. Cervical cancer is the thirteenth most common cancer in U.S. women. A woman in the U.S. has approximately a 1 in 145 chance of being diagnosed with cervical cancer in her lifetime. It is expected that there will be 12,200 new cases of cervical cancer diagnosed in the U.S. in 2010, and that 4,210 women will die from the disease.

How is Cervical Cancer Detected?

Cervical cancer can usually be found early by having regular Pap tests. During a Pap test, a doctor or clinician collects cells from the cervix, which are then placed on a slide or in a liquid filled container and sent to a laboratory for testing. With regular Pap tests and appropriate follow-up care (if needed), death from cervical cancer is almost completely preventable. The American Cancer Society recommends the following guidelines for receiving Pap tests:

  • All women should begin having the Pap test about 3 years after they start having sex (vaginal intercourse), but no later than 21 years of age. The test should be done every year if the regular Pap test is used, or every 2 to 3 years if the liquidbased Pap test is used. Either test is effective in detecting abnormalities.
  • Beginning at age 30, women in monogamous relationships who have had 3 consecutive normal test results may be screened every 2 to 3 years. However, women who continue to experience exposure to human papillomavirus (HPV) should have more frequent Pap tests.
  • Women 70 years of age or older who have had 3 or more consecutive normal tests (and no abnormal tests in the last 10 years) may choose to stop having Pap test screening.
  • Women who have had a total hysterectomy (removal of the uterus and cervix) for reasons other than having cancer or a precancerous lesion may also choose to stop having Pap test screening.

What are the Symptoms of Cervical Cancer?

Symptoms usually appear only when the cancer is more advanced. It is important to report any of the following to a health professional:

  • Any unusual discharge from the vagina
  • Blood spots or light bleeding other than a normal period
  • Bleeding or pain during sex

How is HPV connected to Cervical Cancer?

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is estimated to be the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S., and can affect both men and women. There are more than 100 types of HPV (generally referred to by number, e.g. HPV-16), and they can infect various parts of the body including, most commonly, the genitals, but also the mouth and throat. Over 40 types of HPV can affect the genitals alone. Not all people infected with HPV will show symptoms (in fact, most people won’t display any signs of infection), and for many, the infection will clear on its own with help from the body’s immune system. About 70 percent of cervical cancers that develop are a result of infection with HPV-16 or HPV-18. With regular screening via Pap tests, however, cervical abnormalities usually can be detected and treated before they progress to cancer. Early cervical pre-cancers or cancers often have no signs or symptoms. That's why it's important for women to have regular Pap tests.


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