Cervical Cancer- Symptoms, prevention and treatment

Cervical cancer is a slow growing cancer, but it is easy to detect and now largely preventable. It is one of the few cancers that are almost completely treatable and the death rate in the U.S. is only 4,000 annually, though 12,000 cases may be diagnosed. However, it is important that a diagnosis is made early and for that you need regular screening and also be aware of the signs and symptoms of cervical cancer.

Symptoms of cervical cancer

Like most other cancers, in the early stages cervical cancer may present few or no symptoms. It is only when it advances that symptoms are present and these include:

  • Unusual vaginal discharge that occurs between periods or after menopause
  • Bleeding at odd times, between periods or after menopause or even intercourse or a pelvic exam
  • Pain during sex
  • Pain in the pelvis
  • Anemia
  • Urinary problems

It is important not to ignore ongoing problems and go to the gynecologist or even general physician to get checked out and get further tests as advised. A test for HPV is performed first and if it is positive the doctor will advise more tests. Alternatively a pap smear can also render an early diagnosis and then a biopsy may be required. Otherwise a CT scan or MRI and other tests are also performed. 

Treatment for cervical cancer

The treatment depends on the age of the patient and may or may not involve surgery. It really depends on whether you want to have children or are past your child-bearing ears or don’t want babies. Surgery can be minor and include procedures to excise tumors like LEEP (loop electrosurgical excision procedure), cryotherapy or laser therapy.  These may even be done on an outpatient basis and recovery is fast.

Depending on the stage of the cancer and other factors, the doctor may advise total hysterectomy or other surgical options that may be done via vagina or by cutting the abdomen. Recovery depends on the surgery. If cervical cancer is in an advanced stage, you may have to undergo radiotherapy or chemotherapy as well. 

Prevention of cervical cancer

Most cases of cervical cancer are spread by HPV (human papilloma virus) that is almost always sexually transmitted though it can also spread from skin to skin contact with an infected person. If you are sexually active, with multiple sexual partners you are at greater risk of getting HPV infection. Fortunately an HPV vaccine is available and the American Cancer Society guidelines state that boys and girls get vaccinated at a young age and take the full course of vaccines (three shots over six months). Using a condom during sexual contact is also crucial to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, whether you have got vaccinated or not. In any case the vaccine does not protect against all kinds of HPV viruses. 

In order to prevent cervical cancer you should get vaccinated as long as you are young. For older women who may be sexually active and not had the vaccine, there is some controversy on how helpful or not the vaccine can be and it is not covered by insurance. It is best to discuss with your doctor whether you should get the vaccine or not, how much it will cost and how effective it will be, depending on your age. 

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