January is Cervical Health Awareness Month and I want to take this opportunity to talk about cervical cancer; the symptoms, prevention, and treatment.

What is Cervical Cancer?

First, let’s start by understanding the cervix, according to WebMD, “The cervix is a cylinder-shaped neck of tissue that connects the vagina and uterus. Located at the lowermost portion of the uterus, the cervix is composed primarily of fibromuscular tissue.” The cervix has many jobs; it keeps bad bacteria and viruses out of the uterus, opens and closes to let sperm in and menstrual blood out, widen during childbirth, contains nerve pathways for sexual response, produces lubrication, and grows a plug if you become pregnant (called a mucus plug). You can find more information about the cervix here.

Now that we understand the cervix, let’s talk about cervical cancer. All cancer is caused by changes in our DNA makeup. According to the National Cancer Institute, “Cancer is not one disease, but a collection of related diseases that can occur almost anywhere in the body. At its most basic, cancer is a disease of the genes in the cells of our body. Genes control the way our cells work. But, changes to these genes can cause cells to malfunction, causing them to grow and divide when they should not—or preventing them from dying when they should. These abnormal cells can become cancer.” Cervical cancer, specifically, is caused by cells within the cervix that grow abnormally and then can invade other tissues and organs within the body.

Signs and Symptoms of Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer is a very slow progressing cancer and unfortunately has no signs or symptoms in the early stages. In more advanced stages of the cancer symptoms may include; vaginal bleeding in between menstrual cycles, pain during sex, and abnormal vaginal discharge.

Detection and Diagnosis

During your regular physical exams, your doctor will perform a pap smear. This test scrapes cells from your cervix. These cells are then tested for abnormalities, which can detect cervical cancer.

Treatment

If you have been diagnosed with cervical cancer your doctor will likely perform additional tests and then discuss treatment options. Surgery, radiation, chemotherapy or a combination of the three may be used

Causes

More often than not, cervical cancer is caused by HPV- human papillomavirus. This is a sexually transmitted disease and the good news is there is a vaccination for it. You can learn more by discussing this with your doctor as the vaccine is not right for everyone.

Prevention

Because cervical cancer is most often caused by HPV, a sexually transmitted disease, you can decrease your risk of developing this disease by always practicing safe sex, limiting your number of sexual partners, and by getting your regular pap smear for early diagnosis.

Find More Information on Cervical Health

Want more information on cervical health and other issues that may affect the cervix? Visit the National Cervical Cancer Coalition for more information and additional resources.