What Causes Cervical Cancer in Women?

What Causes Cervical Cancer in Women?

Lara Reden
5 minute read

Cancer can be a scary topic to approach, but learning more about it can prevent or help you manage problems later in life. So what do you need to know to handle what life throws at you? We’ll discuss how to reduce your risk of cervical cancer by defining the cervix, factors that increase your risk of getting cervical cancer, and prevention methods to reduce your risk of cervical cancer.

The Cervix

The cervix is the lower part of the uterus, connecting your uterus to your vagina. Glandular cells coat the endocervix (the opening leading into the cervix). The outer part of the cervix, known as the ectocervix, is covered in squamous cells. The area in which the two types of cells meet in the cervix is called the transformation zone. Most cervical cancers start in the transformation zone. 

What is Cervical Cancer?

Cervical cancer occurs when cervical cells begin to grow out of control. Cancer can affect deeper tissues of the cervix and may spread to other parts of the body such as the lungs, liver, bladder, vagina, and rectum. The disease usually develops slowly, leaving some time to find and treat it while cells are precancerous and before the condition can cause serious problems. There are two main types of cervical cancer: squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma. Squamous cell carcinoma begins in the lining of the cervix, and adenocarcinoma is cervical cancer starting in cells of glands that produce mucus. Mixed carcinoma shares features of the other cancer types.

Most cases are due to human papillomavirus (HPV) and most likely to be found in women 35-44 years old. HPV and atypical cells can be picked up on pap smears with associated cellular testing. Early stages may be hard to recognize because signs and symptoms don’t develop before cervical cancer is in a more advanced stage. Possible symptoms include:

  • Pain during sex

  • Unusual vaginal bleeding or discharge (often malodorous)

  • Pelvic pain

  • Trouble peeing

  • Swollen legs

  • Kidney failure

  • Bone pain

  • Weight loss and lack of appetite

  • Fatigue

Stages of Cervical Cancer

Stages classify the spread of cancer. There are four stages, stage four being the most advanced. When cervical cancer has reached deeper tissue of the cervix but not spread beyond, it’s in stage one. Cervical cancer reaches stage two once it has spread beyond the cervix and uterus, but not to the lower part of the vagina or beyond. Stage three cancer has spread to the lower vagina and possibly some nearby lymph nodes. Once cancer has spread beyond the vagina, it has entered stage four. Your primary care provider may do imaging tests such as, Ultrasound, X-rays, CT, MRIs, or PET scans to diagnose the cancer stage.

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Cervical Cancer Risk Factors

Getting the HPV vaccine can prevent cervical cancer since most cases are caused by HPV. The vaccine is a 2 dose vaccine that is recommended for both boys and girls ages 11-12, though it can be given through the age of 26. Women between the ages of 35-44 are most likely to get cervical cancer. Risk factors include:

  • Having sex before 16 years old or within a year of starting your period

  • Having multiple sex partners

  • Taking birth control pills for an extended period, especially 5+ years

  • Smoking

  • A weakened immune system

  • STDs

Cervical Cancer Prevention

Regular screening can help detect problems early. Every three years, once you turn 21, you should get a Pap smear. This recommendation changes if you are 30-65 years. In this period, get a Pap test and HPV test every five years. If you’re sexually active and at high risk for STDs, like if you have multiple partners, get annual STD tests, including an HIV test at least once. Practicing safe sex will reduce risk. Since HPV is the most common cause of cervical cancer, it’s beneficial to get the HPV vaccine. Healthier lifestyle practices may also help prevent cancer, though not every factor is within your control. One thing you can do is avoid smoking. 

How to Check for Cervical Cancer at Home

Recognizing warning signs will get you pretty far. If you think you may have cervical cancer, it’s worth asking your primary care provider to test for an accurate diagnosis. From there, you can discuss what you can do both at home and other possible treatment options. You can ease physical and mental stress by focusing on diet, exercise, and sleep. Try following a nutritious diet, staying as active as you can, sleeping enough, and avoiding things like smoking and alcohol (alcohol can interact poorly with certain medications). The medical treatments for cervical cancer usually depends on the stage of cancer. They include:

  • Various degrees of surgery (remove cancer only, remove the cervix, or remove the cervix and uterus)

  • External or internal radiation therapy

  • Chemotherapy (sometimes combined with targeted therapy)

  • Immunotherapy

  • Palliative care (often focused on pain relief)

Remember that you don’t have to handle everything on your own. It’s a good idea to set up a support system at home and otherwise. Consider who and what helps you manage tough situations. You can set up small daily goals, make time for yourself, and figure out who can help support you when you need. You can always ask your primary care provider about local support groups as well.

Getting regular screening will increase your chances of early detection and preventing worse health problems.

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