Cervical cancer is the development of neoplastic, or cancerous, changes in the cells of the cervix, an anatomical structure found in the female reproductive system. Approximately 12,000 U.S. women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, with more than 4,000 deaths (2010 numbers from the National Cancer Institute). The challenge with this particular cancer is diagnosis. Cervical cancer symptoms are often not seen before the advanced stages of the disease.
The most common cervical cancer symptoms are pain and vaginal bleeding (American Cancer Society) – vaginal bleeding after menopause or regularly after sexual intercourse and between periods is abnormal and medical advice should be sought. Pelvic pain is sometimes attributed to ovulation or PMS, but prolonged pain should be examined by a doctor. Another symptom that may appear is unusually heavy discharge that mimics mucus, and it may possibly have a foul odor. Each woman should be aware of changes in her natural secretions. Once the cancer has spread, particularly to the bladder, there may be pain during urination.
To overcome the lack of clinical symptoms, preventative screening is used to diagnose cervical cancer at its earliest stages by looking for pathological changes in the cells of the cervix. The earliest stages of cervical cancer development can be detected by a Pap smear (Papanicolaou test), which is done by gynecologists during a regular pelvic exam to determine if any changes have occurred in the cervical epithelium, an indicator of cancer development. After the Pap smear was developed in the 1950s, the rate of cervical cancer decreased by 75% over the proceeding 20 years (TheLancet), and the rate of cervical cancer can still decrease each year with better treatments, detection, and education.
To be aware of when to be alert for the limited symptoms, it is important to understand who is at risk for cervical cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, cervical cancer rarely affects women under the age of 20. Most diagnoses occur in women between 35 and 55 years of age, the average age of cervical cancer patients is in the mid-forties (2010 median was 48 years of age), and nearly 20% of patients who are diagnosed with cervical cancer are over the age of 65. The 5-year relative survival rate for the earliest stage of invasive cervical cancer is 92%, making it one of the more treatable cancers. The overall survival rate of all stages is about 72%. Risk factors for the development of cervical cancer include the use of oral contraceptives, smoking, early sexual encounters, multiple sexual partners, and viruses such as human papillomavirus, the cause of genital warts.