When found and treated early, cancer of the cervix (the lower part of the uterus) is highly curable. In fact, cervical cancer used to be a common cause of cancer death several decades ago, but the number of deaths has declined by about 75% since the 1950s. The main reason for this decline is the use of the Pap test, or Pap smear, for early diagnosis. When an annual Pap test reveals a pre-malignant lesion and is treated appropriately, a very early cervical cancer is highly curable; the survival rate is almost 100%.
An annual Pap test can detect this condition before it is even called “cancer.” It can take several years for cancer to develop from “precancerous changes,” which typically have no symptoms and are detected only by the Pap test. Symptoms of cervical cancer are more likely to appear when the cancer is further along. You should see your doctor if you have any unusual discharge from the vagina, blood spots or light bleeding other than your normal period, or bleeding or pain during sexual intercourse.
Recently, the Pap test has been improved technically. The improved Pap test is called the ThinPrep Test. This new type of test differs in the way the cells are delivered to the lab, making the cells clearer and easier to read. Health Alliance Laboratory Services is among a growing number of laboratories nationwide that use the ThinPrep Pap Test for cervical cancer screening.
If your symptoms or the results of a Pap smear raise questions, your doctor will perform a colposcopy, using a magnified, lighted microscope through which the vulva, vagina and cervix can be visualized. If your doctor sees abnormal area(s), a biopsy will be taken to sample the tissue for pre-malignant and cancerous cells. Precancerous lesions can effectively be treated using Laser or LEEP procedure, and sometimes the biopsy itself can be used to treat a precancerous condition. If you do have cancer, your condition will be “staged” to determine the extent of the disease, and this staging will determine your course of treatment. Treatment will involve surgery, and possibly radiation therapy, chemotherapy or a combination of them.
In the last decade, much has been learned about cervical cancer, including risk factors that can be controlled. The most important risk factor is infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV). This is a virus that can be passed from one person to another during sexual intercourse. Unfortunately, condoms do not provide total protection. Having sexual intercourse at a young age and/or with many different partners clearly increases one’s chance of getting an HPV infection. Smoking also doubles a woman’s risk for getting cervical cancer.
The most important thing a woman can do to protect herself from cervical cancer is to get a regular Pap test. Although cervical cancer risk does not increase much after the age of 40, it doesn’t get any lower, either. Consider an annual Pap test your best protection.
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