What Is Cervical Cancer?
Cervical cancer begins when cells in the lining of the cervix start to grow out of control. The cervix is in the lower section of the uterus and contains two parts. The exocervix is the outer part of the cervix and is lined with squamous cells. The endocervix is the opening of the cervix that leads to the vagina and is covered in glandular cells. The two cells meet in the cervix in a place called the transformation zone, and this is where most cervical cancers start. Cervical cancers in the exocervix are squamous cell carcinomas, and cancers of the endocervix are adenocarcinomas. Rarely, cervical cancers can be made of both and are known as adenosquamous carcinomas.
In the transformation zone, cells do not become cancerous right away. Instead, they become “precancerous” first, meaning they will have abnormalities that may or may not become cancers in the future. Regular screening for these abnormalities can lead to catching and treating cancer either before it starts, or very early on. If detected early, cervical cancer is one of the most successfully treated cancers.
What Is Screening for Cervical Cancer?
Cervical cancer screening is a test that is done to find precancerous abnormalities before they potentially become cancerous. Early detection of precancerous cells can lead to treatment and prevention of cervical cancer. HPV tests and Pap tests are both used to screen for precancerous cells. The HPV test looks for high risk HPV infection that can cause precancerous changes, and the Pap test looks for precancerous changes in cells in the cervix. Precancerous changes detected by a Pap test can usually be treated before they become cancer. It is important for women to have regular screenings throughout their adult lives to help prevent cervical cancer.
How Is HPV Related to Cervical Cancer?
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a group of 150 related viruses. Some cause warts, others cause precancerous changes that can greatly increase the risk of cervical cancer. HPV is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, including through sexual activity, and can infect cells on the surface of the skin including those lining the genitals, anus, mouth, and throat. Low-risk types of HPV may cause warts, but they are not often linked to cancer. High-risk types of HPV, however, are strongly linked to cancers in both men and women (cervix, vulva, and vagina for women, penis for men, and anus, mouth and throat cancers for both). There is no treatment for HPV, but some people can eliminate the virus without treatment. There is also a vaccine that can help prevent certain types of the virus.
What Are Cervical Cancer Risk Factors?
HPV is the most important risk factor for cervical cancer. Other risk factors include sexual history, HIV, smoking, chlamydia, having multiple full-term pregnancies, having pregnancies while very young (under 20), and long-term use of oral contraceptives. While all the listed factors can increase the risk of developing cervical cancer, they do not mean you will get cervical cancer. Family history of cervical cancer can also lead to an increased risk. However, there are also ways to lower the risk of cervical cancer including eating a diet high in fruits and veggies, as well as using an IUD (intrauterine device) as a form of contraception.
What Are Cervical Cancer Signs and Symptoms?
Cervical cancer symptoms do not usually appear until the cancer has spread past the precancerous and early stages. Therefore, it is very important to get tested for cervical cancer regularly. When the cancer reaches an advanced stage, symptoms can include:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding
- An unusual discharge from the vagina
- Pain during sex
- Pain in the pelvic region
At an even more advanced stage, symptoms may also include:
- Swelling of the legs
- Problems urinating or having a bowel movement
- Blood in the urine
Any of the above symptoms can also be caused by other factors than cervical cancer, but it is important to have them checked by a doctor to find the underlying cause.
What Are Treatments for Cervical Cancer?
Treatment for cervical cancer depends on the stage of the cancer, but commonly includes the below options, often in combination with each other: chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, immunotherapy, and targeted drug therapy. Bevacizumab (Avastin®) is a common drug therapy that targets specific changes in the cervical cells. Specifically, it is an angiogenesis inhibitor that can be used to treat advanced cervical cancer by targeting the protein in the cell that helps tumors grow new blood vessels. Clinical trials are also an option with this therapy as well as others.
How Do I Find Clinical Trials for Cervical Cancer?
There are more than 600 clinical trials for cervical cancer recruiting patients in the United States. With such a long list of trials, it is difficult to know which one is the most beneficial for you. Our team of patient advocates, case managers, and our artificial intelligence based clinical trial matching system will find the best option for your individual case. Find clinical trials here.