Cervical Cancer

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Cervical cancer is cancer that originates in the cervix, the lower part of the uterus (womb) that connects the body of the uterus to the birth canal. Cancer develops when cells in a part of the body begin to grow out of control. In the cervix, this usually happens in the cells lining the inside of the organ, where normal cells gradually develop precancerous changes that turn into cancer. A tumor can form where the cancer cells started or the cancer cells can travel to other parts of the body, where they begin to grow and replace normal tissue. Both situations can cause problems when cancer cells invade normal cells.

How common is cervical cancer in the Philippines?

In 2005, it was estimated that about 7,000 new cases and 4,000 deaths due to cervical cancer occurred. That meant about ten (10) Filipino women died each day from cervical cancer. In 2004, cervical cancer was the second most common type of cancer death among women.

What causes cervical cancer?

Several risk factors that increase the odds that a women might develop cervical cancer have been identified. The most important of these is infection by the human papilloma virus (HPV). Doctors believe that women must have been infected by this virus before they will develop cervical cancer. There are more than 100 types of HPVs, some causing non-cancerous warts. Certain high-risk types can cause cancer of the cervix, and these include types 16, 18, 31, 33, and 45. About two-thirds of all cervical cancers are caused by HPV type 16 and 18.

In an international study of women with cervical cancer in 22 countries, 96 percent of the women with cervical cancer in South Asia (Philippines, Indonesia, India, and Thailand) were infected with HPV, primarily types 16 and 18.

What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?

Cervical pre-cancers and early cancers usually show no symptoms or signs. Symptoms usually develop when the cancer has become invasive and replaces nearby normal tissue. When this happens, the most common symptom is abnormal vaginal bleeding.

Women may also notice one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Unusual discharge from the vagina, separate from the normal monthly menstrual period (blood spots or light bleeding between menses)
  • Heavier than usual menstrual bleeding, also lasting longer
  • Bleeding following intercourse, douching, or after a pelvic exam
  • Pain during sexual intercourse

How can cervical cancer be prevented?

Since the most common form of cervical cancer starts with pre-cancerous changes, there are two ways to stop the disease from developing. The first way is to prevent the pre-cancers, and the second way is to detect pre-cancers before they become cancerous.

Most pre-cancers of the cervix can be prevented by avoiding exposure to HPV. Delaying sexual intercourse while one is young can help avoid HPV. Limiting the number of sexual partners and avoiding sex with people who have had many sexual partners can lower the risk of exposure to HPV. Vaccines that can immunize people against HPV infection have been developed and have been shown to reduce the chances of abnormal Pap test caused by HPV types 16 and 18.

Detection and treatment of pre-cancers can stop cervical cancer before it becomes fully developed. To detect pre-cancers, the Pap smear is a simple test that detects abnormal cells in the cervix that may become cancerous. Over the past 30 years, deaths due to cervical cancer have decreased by 50% due to widespread screening with the Pap smear.

The American Cancer Society recommends that women after onset of sexual activity, or after the age of 20 should have two consecutive yearly smears. If these are negative, smears should be repeated every three years. It is recommended that for the average risk Filipino female, a Pap smear should be done every year after an initial negative test starting at age 30. High risk women may be tested more frequently.

What can you do to help protect yourself?

Be aware of cervical cancer and how it can be prevented. Talk to your doctor about it. The best source of information about cervical cancer prevention is your doctor.

From Be On GUARD, a health information program of MSD