Cervical cancer is the abnormal, uncontrollable growth of cells in the outside layer of cells on the cervix. The cervix is at the lower end of the pair-shaped uterus, that forms a canal between the uterus and vagina. Every year approximately fifteen thousand women are diagnosed with cervical cancer. About five thousand women die of this disease, and that's only in the United States. Worldwide, cervical cancer affects five hundred thousand women annually, and in some counties this is the most common form of cancer among women. But, with early detection from screening, such as the Pap smear, this deadly disease can be found and stopped.

How does one develop cervical cancer?

Studies have shown that a virus called the human papillomauirus (HPV) is the top cause of cervical cancer and is present in mostly all cases of cervical cancer. Of more than seventy kinds of HPV, only thirteen types are believed to have links to cervical cancer. HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections in the U.S. It has been shown that about eighty percent of women will get HPV. Most women will get HPV in their early twenties, but only a few cases will develop into cancer. Cervical cancer may take years to develop. Before the cancer develops, changes take place in the cells of the cervix.

These abnormal cells can be detected by a smear test before they turn into cancer. The name given to the abnormal cells in the cervix that may lead to cancer is known as CIN (cervical intra-epithelial neoplasia), or precancer. One big risk factor in developing this cell is having intercourse at a young age; because a woman cervix does not fully mature until the age of eighteen. These young cells can be damaged during intercourse. Another risk factor is having many sexual partners at a young age. But many women will get the HPV virus without these factors.

What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?

There are only a few symptoms of cervical cancer, because in most cases the cancer is detected before the symptoms start. The most common symptom is abnormal bleeding between periods or after intercourse. Often there is a foul smelling discharge between periods. Some women may also experience discomfort during intercourse. Women who have been through menopause will probably also have some bleeding.

How is cervical cancer detected?

The smear test, or Pap smear, is used to help detect and diagnose cancer of the cervix. It is most commonly used as a routine test to detect early cell changes (CIN). This is known as cervical screening. The vagina walls are held open with a speculum and samples of cells are then scraped from the cervix. The sample is then placed on a glass slide for examination under a microscope to detect any abnormal cells.

This test should be done once a year by a gynecologist. Another test for cervical cancer is a colposcopy. This is usually done in a hospital outpatient clinic, if further testing is necessary after a Pap smear. A solution is dabbed onto the cervix to make the abnormal areas shown up more clearly. A light is then shown onto the cervix and a doctor looks through a colposcope, kind of like a small microscope, to examine the area in more detail. Small samples of the surface cells are then taken for examination under a microscope.

If the abnormal area can't be seen properly with the colposcope, a cone biopsy may be used. This is often done under local anesthetic and a short stay in the hospital may be necessary. In this procedure, a small cone-shaped section of the cervix, enough to take away any abnormal cells, is taken for examination. If there is just a very slight growth, the cone biopsy may be able to remove all abnormal cells. If the growth is larger than the small sample taken, the cone biopsy in not enough, but this method is still very useful in making a diagnosis.

What treatments are used for cervical cancer?

There are three main treatments for cervical cancer. A doctor will discuss a patient's options with her first to find what is best for her. Surgery is one option. This operation usually involves the removing of the womb (hysterectomy), and even sometimes a small part of the vagina and lymph nodes. The ovaries may also be removed, but, when possible, they are preserved in young women because this may bring in an early menopause. After this surgery, women will be left with out any reproductive organs so it is impossible to have children. If it is necessary to remove the ovaries, the symptoms of menopause can often be prevented by hormone replacement therapy. Radiotherapy, or radiation, threats cancer by using high-energy rays which destroy the cancer cells, while doing as little harm as possible to the normal cells.

Radiotherapy can be given externally or internally, or sometimes a combination of the two. I the past radiotherapy sometimes lead to long-term effects on the bowls and bladder. But now improved planning and treatments have made these effects less likely. This treatment is usually given if the cancer has spread beyond the cervix and is not curable with surgery alone. Radiotherapy may also be used after surgery if there is a high risk that the cancer may come back. Side effects from radiotherapy can include, felling nauseous, tiredness, diarrhea, and a burning sensation while urinating. It is important that the patient drinks plenty of fluids and eats healthy while on this treatment.

If loss of appetite is experienced then the patient should substitute meals with soup or high calorie drinks. Depending on the amount of radiation needed, most of the time women are left sterile, or unable to have children. Chemotherapy is the third treatment used to treat cervical cancer. This uses a special anti-cancer (cytotoic) drugs to destroy cancer. Chemotherapy may be given before surgery or radiotherapy, to shrink cancer and make these treatments easier to carry out. The drugs are usually given intravenously, through an I.V. This tends to reduce the number of red blood cells in the body, and one is more likely to get an infection and tire easily.

Other side effects include, felling nauseous, vomiting, or hair loss. Though many of these treatments are highly effective, the best way to treat cervical cancer is early detection. Regular Pap smears are the most effective in early detection; with these one can detect and treat abnormal cells before cancer develops. But if cervical has developed then there are many options of treatment for the patient, such as: surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. It is important that a patient receive treatment for her own well being. The sooner one detects this cancer; the sooner it can be treated.