Cervical cancer is a disease where normal cells in the cervix change and multiply to form a growth or tumour. It is also known as cancer of the cervix. Almost all cases of cervical cancer are linked to long term, persistent and ongoing infection with some types of human papillomavirus (HPV).
HPV is a very common virus, and exposure to HPV is considered a normal part of being sexually active. There are over 100 types of HPV affecting various parts of the body but only a few are linked to cervical cancer.
Most women with HPV do not develop cervical cancer. In most cases the body’s immune system clears the infection naturally in one to two years and the changes in the cervical cells can resolve themselves.
In a small number of women HPV infection persists and the changes don’t go away. Treating these changes early enough can prevent long term effect. In a few rare cases when the cells changes are not detected and treated, cancer can eventually develop.
Cancer of the cervix is one of the most preventable of all cancers providing that women go for their regular Pap tests. Regular Pap tests can pick up these changes that can be treated before cancer develops.
Risk factors associated with cervical cancer
Research shows a link with sexual activity and some forms of HPV as such the following risk factors for cervical cancer include:
- having any sexual contact during lifetime
- having sexual contact for the first time at an early age
- having multiple sexual partners or having a partner who has had multiple sexual partners
- persistent or ongoing infection with HPV that is taking longer than usual to clear
- not having regular Pap tests (most women who are diagnosed with cervical cancer in Australia have not had regular Pap tests as recommended)
- older women generally think that the risk of cervical cancer decreases with age, which is incorrect and why it’s important for women to continue their regular Pap tests until they turn 70.
Other risk factors include:
- tobacco smoking
- having a weakened or impaired immune system due to cancer, HIV/AIDS positive, alcohol or drug abuse
- exposure before birth to diethylstilbestrol (DES) which was a medicine prescribed to pregnant women.
Condoms offer very limited protection against HPV, as they don’t cover all of the genital skin. However, they do offer protection against many other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
The early stages of cervical cancer often have no symptoms. Women may only experience symptoms when the cancer has advanced or has spread. These symptoms can include:
- abnormal bleeding such as bleeding from the vagina at times other than during your period, during or after vaginal sex, and after menopause
- unusual vaginal discharge
- pain during or after vaginal sex.
Pap tests are for healthy women so if you are experiencing any symptoms you should see your health practitioner without delay. Even if your previous Pap test results were negative (normal), you should seek advice from your health practitioner if you have any of the above symptoms.