Cervical cancer may occur because of numerous reasons but has a strong association with a long-standing infection with human papillomavirus (HPV). Cervical cancer occurs in the cells of the cervix (the mouth of the uterus). This cancer can affect the deeper tissues of the cervix and may spread to other parts of the body, often the lungs, liver, bladder, vagina and rectum.
What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?
Women of 35 to 44 years old are susceptible to cervical cancer. More than 15% of new cases are in women above the age of 65 years. Below are few common symptoms of cervical cancer:
- Dyspareunia (pain during sexual intercourse)
- Unusual vaginal bleeding, such as after sex, between periods, after menopause or after a pelvic exam
- Unusual and frequent vaginal discharge
- Lower abdominal or pelvic pain
- Trouble peeing
- Swollen legs
- Malfunctioning of kidneys
- Generalized body pains with weakness
- Weight loss and lack of appetite
How is cervical cancer diagnosed?
Usually, cervical cancer grows slowly. Cervical cancer can be diagnosed using below methods:
- Papanicolaou test (Pap smear): A Pap smear is part of a woman’s regular pelvic exam. Doctor usually collects cells from the surface of the cervix, and a technician examines them under a microscope to spot anything unusual.
- Colposcopy: It is performed if the Pap smear shows any abnormal cells. In this procedure, the cervix is stained with a harmless dye or acetic acid so that the cells are easier to observe. Then, a microscope known as colposcope is used to magnify the cervix by 8 to 15 times for identifying unusual cells for biopsy. Some patients may need another biopsy if the colposcope shows signs of invasive cancer.
- Loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP): In the LEEP, doctor usually uses an electrified loop of wire to take a sample of tissue from the cervix. Doctor can even do a conization (removal of part of your cervix) in the operating room under anesthesia. They might use a LEEP, a scalpel (cold knife conization) or a laser. LEEP and cold knife conization procedures give doctor a better look at the types of unusual cells in the cervix.
How cervical cancer is usually treated?
Cervical cancer is usually treated using below methods:
- Surgery: If the cancer is only on the surface of the cervix, doctor may remove or destroy the cancerous cells with procedures like LEEP or cold knife conization. If cancerous cells have passed through a layer called the basement membrane, which separates the surface of the cervix from underlying layers, patient may need invasive surgery. If the disease has invaded deeper layers of your cervix but hasn’t spread to other parts of your body, an operation to take out the tumor might be recommended. If it spreads into the uterus, doctor will probably recommend a hysterectomy (removing the entire uterus to decrease the chances of cancer spread).
- Radiation therapy (or radiotherapy): It uses high-energy rays to damage cancer cells and stop their growth. Sometimes, a small capsule containing radioactive material is placed in the cervix. The capsule emits cancer-killing rays close to the tumor while sparing most of the healthy tissue around it.
- Chemotherapy: It uses powerful drugs to kill cancer cells. Doctors often use it for cervical cancer that’s locally advanced and if cancer has a high chance to spread to other parts of the body.
- Biological therapy or immunotherapy: This targets checkpoints in the immune cells that are turned on or off to set off an immune response. A medicine called pembrolizumab (Keytruda) blocks a protein on the cells to shrink tumors or slow their growth. Doctors use it if chemotherapy isn’t working or if the cancer is beginning to spread.