Cervical cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer found in women. Experts are unsure as to what causes the cancer, but studies have shown that the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection, significantly increases a woman’s risk of cervical cancer. PAP smear screening is recommended for all women between the ages of 18 and 64.
- Having sex at an early age and/or having multiple sexual partners
- Having sex without condoms
- Smoking cigarettes
- Recurrent sexually transmitted diseases
- A compromised or weak immune system
- A family history of cervical cancer
Preventing Cervical Cancer
Early detection is the best way to prevent cervical cancer. It is important to have a PAP smear every year once you become sexually active or by the time you’re 18 years old. Even though the average age of diagnosis is 50 to 55 years, it is not unheard of for younger women to be diagnosed with the cancer. Cervical cancer is preventable if it is detected early with a PAP smear. If you are over the age of 64 or postmenopausal, you should still continue to have regular PAP smears.
Leading a healthy lifestyle, practicing safe sex, and not smoking are some easy ways of lowering your chances of developing cervical cancer. There is even evidence to suggest that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables may reduce your risk, so be sure to eat five to six servings a day.
The type of treatment you receive will depend on a few factors: age, location of the abnormal or cancerous cells, results of the coloscopy and whether or not you wish to have children later on.
When unusual cells have shown up in a PAP smear but the cells themselves are not yet cancerous, you will be told you have abnormal cells. Although you have not been diagnosed with cervical cancer, it is best to take action since it is highly likely that the cells will become cancerous if left untreated. Here are some of the more common forms of treatment for abnormal cells:
Excision: cuts out the abnormal cells
Electrocautery: an electric current is passed through a metal rod that burns and destroys any abnormal cells
Cryosurgery: carbon dioxide or nitrous oxide are used to freeze the abnormal cells
Laser vaporization: the area of abnormal cells is burned away with a laser beam
Radical trachelectomy: just the cervix is removed
Conization: a cone-shaped area of the affected cells is removed, not only to treat the abnormal cells but also to be sent for biopsy
Most of these treatments will not affect your fertility.
A hysterectomy is the complete removal of the cervix and uterus. If you have abnormal cells that are severe, meaning that they will soon become cancerous, or if you have had repeat abnormal smears, a hysterectomy may be suggested. A hysterectomy is also recommended if you have been diagnosed with cervical cancer. However, it is a much bigger operation at this stage.
In addition to removing your cervix and uterus, all the tissue that holds your cervix and uterus in place, the top of your vagina and the lymph nods that surround your uterus will also need to be removed. If your cancer is in the advanced stages, you may also need to have part of your bowel, rectum, bladder and/or the lymph nodes surrounding your bowel and bladder removed.
Radiation can be used in the early stages of cervical cancer as well as in the advanced stages. It involves using high doses of x-rays or radioactive material to shrink and kill the cancerous cells. For cervical cancer, you may receive internal or external therapy. Internal radiation therapy will require a two to three day stay at a hospital. During this time, a large dose of radioactive material is placed inside your vagina that will kill off all the cancerous cells.
External therapy is an outpatient procedure whereby you travel to a hospital or clinic several times a week for a number of weeks to receive treatment.
This is a form of treatment involving drugs, either in the form of pills or injections, to kill off the cancer cells. Since the drugs enter your blood stream, it is easier for them to reach and kill all the cancerous cells. It is an outpatient procedure and may be combined with radiation therapy.
Cervical Cancer in Pregnancy
Very few women develop cervical cancer while they are pregnant. However, if you are diagnosed with the cancer while you are pregnant, how it is treated is dependant on a variety of factors.
If the cancer is detected in its earliest stage, 1A, and you are in your second or third trimester, most likely you will be able to complete your pregnancy and receive treatment after delivery. If you are only in the first three months of your pregnancy, receiving immediate treatment is strongly encouraged. However, this will result in you having to terminate your pregnancy.
If the cancer is already advanced to stage 1B, you will need to consider whether or not to continue your pregnancy. If you decide to continue the pregnancy, your child will be delivered by cesarean once it is able to survive outside of the womb. This is done in order for you to receive treatment as soon as possible. If you choose not to continue the pregnancy, you will receive treatment right away. The most common treatments are hysterectomy and/or radiation, both of which will prevent you from having children in the future. If your cancer is detected at any stage beyond 1B, you are strongly encouraged to seek treatment immediately.
Pregnancy after Cervical Cancer
Unfortunately, becoming pregnant after receiving treatment for cervical cancer is highly unlikely. This is because one of the most common forms of treatment is a hysterectomy. Radiation therapy is another common choice but it can also significantly damage your reproductive organs thereby making conception nearly impossible. The type of treatment you receive will depend on what stage your cervical cancer has advanced to.
If you are faced with receiving treatment for cervical cancer, discuss with your health care provider any wishes you may have about conceiving children in the future. There may be alternatives that can lessen the impact on your reproductive system.
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