The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2014, 12,360 new cases of invasive cervical cancer will be diagnosed among women in the United States. During this same time period approximately 4,020 women will die of cervical cancer. While the discussion any number of estimated deaths due to cancer are alarming, the routine use of early detection methods such as Pap Tests/Pap Smears has served to reduce these numbers dramatically in recent decades.
Under normal conditions the cervix remains in a closed position. During labor the cervix opens which then allows the baby to travel through the birth canal. During the menstrual period, blood travels out of the uterus and through the cervix. Think of the cervix as a narrow hallway which connects two adjoining rooms, the uterus (womb) and the vagina. At the time of conception the cervix produces mucus which aids in the travel of sperm from the vagina into the uterus.
Early Stages of Cervical Cancer
Precancerous or abnormal cells can form on the surface of the cervix. These cells can be detected at a very early stage by a Pap smear. This condition of abnormal yet precancerous cells is known as Dysplasia. The abnormal cells associated with Dysplasia do not migrate to nearby tissues. While this condition will often go away without treatment, it can also eventually lead to cervical cancer. Cervical cancer develops at a slow pace and begins with the growth of cancerous cells on the surface of the cervix.
Cervical Cancer and HPV
There are many types of HPV, or human papilloma virus. HPV is a sexually transmitted virus that does not always cause serious medical problems. It is very common for HPV infections to resolve themselves and clear up without any medical treatment. The same holds true for precancerous legions which will often disappear without any medical intervention.
According to a World Health Organization report from September 2013, there is a risk for all women that HPV infections can develop into a chronic state and precancerous legions can progress to invasive cervical cancer. It takes 15 to 20 years for cervical cancer to develop in women with normal immune function, and only 5 to 10 years to in women with weakened immune systems. Regular Pap tests can help to detect any changes to the cervix which could be the first sign of cervical cancer.
Risk Factors Associated with Persistent HPV/Cervical Cancer
Women who forgo screening are at higher risk for HPV/Cervical Cancer.
Known Risk Factors:
- Early sexual intercourse
- Multiple sexual partners
- Tobacco use
- HIV infected individuals
- Women infected with chlamydia
- Women using birth control pills
- Women with relatives (mother, sister) diagnosed with cervical cancer.
The best way to have peace of mind regarding cervical cancer is to get tested on a regular basis. You do not need to have any of the risk factors notes above to have a Pap test. Have an open dialogue with your doctor and explain your individual situation.
Your doctor can best advise you on the frequency of tests needed for your unique situation. Keep in mind that a Pap test can detect the earliest changes in cells before they turn into cervical cancer. The test itself is quick and painless and well worth your time. Detecting cervical cancer at an early stage could make all the difference in surviving, while living a healthy, active life!