Considering contracting HPV is nearly inevitable, most women could stand to get a little wiser about cervical cancer. Even though it doesn’t get nearly as much attention as breast cancer, which the American Cancer Society reports is the second leading cause of cancer death for American women, cervical cancer is still no joke. A diagnosis can have major implications for starting a family, not to mention the risk of both mortality and recurrence. Since education is the first step, arm yourself with these must-know facts.
1. Cervical cancer is one of the most deadly cancers for young women
Most medical information about cervical cancer is geared toward young women, and for good reason. Though young ladies are more likely to die due to an accident of some sort, according to research published in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, cancer is the second most common killer. If we look even closer, the results show cervical cancer is the second most deadly type of cancer among American women between the ages of 20 and 39.
Bear in mind, we’re only talking several hundred. The risk of mortality among young women is significantly lower than for older women. Still, it’s a wake-up call for young females. Those who’ve been lax about scheduling appointments need to make it more of a priority. In the event of aggressive HPV, going too long without detection is risky.
2. It’s also one of the most treatable types of cancer
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cervical cancer used to be one of the most common causes of death among women in their childbearing years, but advances like the pap smear have slashed incidence and death rates by more than 60%.
It’s worth noting cervical cancer is sort of a process. Ob-gyns like to illustrate cervical changes on a spectrum to help patients understand that abnormal cell changes can, but won’t necessarily, become cancer. The National Cancer Institute offers a diagram that helps illustrate what results from an abnormal pap smear mean. Generally, there are two stages of irregular cell changes between normal and cancer: low-grade squamous intraepithelial lesions and high-grade squamous intraepithelial lesions. Even for those who do end up with a diagnosis, cervical cancer is still one of the most treatable types of cancer.
3. HPV is almost always the cause
Once something only discussed in a doctor’s office, the HPV vaccine has gotten a boost from robust advertising in the last few years. It makes sense when you consider the association with cervical cancer. The National Cervical Cancer Coalition says 99% of all cases are caused by HPV, and two types of the virus account for 70% of those diagnoses.
One of the simplest, and most effective ways to guard against HPV is to get the vaccine. One 2014 review found these shots are highly effective, with some studies indicating 100% protection against the two most harmful strains of the virus. It’s also wise to limit your number of partners as much as possible.
4. Early stages have no symptoms
It might seem like we’re hammering the point to maintain regular screenings as prescribed by your doctor, but it really is important. This is even more true when you consider early-stage cervical cancer rarely has symptoms. Healthline explains irregular discharges and vaginal bleeding could mean the cells have progressed to invasive cancer. These abnormalities don’t necessarily indicate cancer, but they’re definitely worth a visit to the doctor.
5. Smoking increases your risk
Add an increased risk of cervical cancer to the long list of reasons to steer clear of cigarettes. One review published in ISRN Obstetrics and Gynecology found smoking was associated with a higher risk of cervical cancer. Though the author can’t explain exactly why this is the case, he hypothesized it has to do with a combination of cigarettes’ carcinogenic effect and ability to suppress the immune system. Smokers who contract HPV would be wise to drop the habit.
6. There are multiple types
Cervical cancer usually falls under one of two types. The first is squamous cell carcinoma, which occurs in the flat cells that line the bottom portion of the cervix. According to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, this kind accounts for 80% to 90% of all cervical cancer cases. The other type is called adenocarcinoma, which begins in the glandular cells that line the top of the cervix. Left untreated, both types can spread to other parts of the body.
7. Getting pregnant after treatment is very difficult
The most common treatment for cervical cancer is surgery. Though women in very early stages may be able to have a minimal procedure, a hysterectomy is common. Mayo Clinic highlights the two types used to treat cervical cancer, both of which require removing the cervix and uterus. In the event of a hysterectomy, traditional pregnancy is no longer an option. If, however, the ovaries are left intact, egg retrieval to be used for a surrogate pregnancy is an option.
For those who opt for radiation or chemotherapy, there’s still no guarantee you’ll be able to bear children. Everyday Health explains some women go through menopause after treatment, so it’s important to have a conversation about fertility with your doctors early on.
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