Cervical cancer has a quality that sets it apart from nearly every other type of cancer: More than 95% of all cases of cervical cancer are preventable.
At Karen F. Brodman, MD, PLLC, we’re dedicated to helping women prevent cervical cancer. We talk with our patients about the risks and causes of the disease, and most importantly, we help them prevent it with routine Pap smears and HPV vaccinations.
If you have questions about cervical cancer, don't hesitate to call our office on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Meanwhile, here's everything you need to know about cervical cancer.
HPV causes cervical cancer
The human papillomavirus (HPV) causes more than 95% of all cervical cancers. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection. It's so common that nearly everyone has HPV at some time in their life.
Luckily, your immune system usually clears HPV out of your body before it causes health problems. But sometimes the infection doesn't go away. Instead, it invades cells in the tissues lining your cervix. That's when cervical cancer begins.
Cervical cancer progresses through stages
HPV changes the genes that control how cells divide and grow. After HPV takes hold, the affected cells grow abnormally, eventually creating a mass (tumor) of cancerous tissue.
The cellular growth goes through several stages. At first, the changes are abnormal but not cancerous. At this early precancerous stage, you have cervical dysplasia (a low-grade lesion).
Low-grade lesions have more normal than abnormal cells. Your HPV infection can still heal at this stage. If it doesn't, the cells keep growing out of control, progressing to form a high-grade lesion.
High-grade lesions have more abnormal cells than normal ones. Though these lesions aren't quite cancerous, they're dangerous because the infection won't heal at this stage. Without treatment, the tumor turns into full-blown cervical cancer.
We can still prevent cervical cancer by detecting and removing the abnormal cells during the first and second stages. After cancer develops, our ability to cure the disease depends on whether it has spread beyond your cervix.
Don't count on cervical cancer symptoms
You can't depend on signs alerting you to a possible problem because cervical cancer doesn't cause symptoms in its early stages.
As the cancer reaches an advanced stage, you may have symptoms such as:
- Bleeding after sex
- Bleeding after menopause
- Bleeding between periods
- Heavy or long periods
- Vaginal discharge
- Pelvic pain
- Leg swelling
- Difficulty urinating
- Blood in your urine
These symptoms could signal one of many possible gynecologic conditions, so it's important to protect your health by scheduling a checkup.
Two ways to prevent cervical cancer
Women have two effective tools for preventing cervical cancer. You can schedule regular Pap smears and get the HPV vaccine.
Pap smears can find the earliest cellular changes. All women should have their first Pap smear at 21, whether or not they're sexually active. We usually perform Pap smears during annual well-woman exams. However, you can schedule the test at any time.
We gently swab a tissue sample from your cervix and send it to a lab. Lab technicians evaluate the sample under a microscope, looking at all the cells for signs of abnormal changes. Then they send us a report with details about the types of cells and the stage of cellular changes.
If your results show early, precancerous changes, we may ask you to wait a short time before having a second Pap test, or we may run an HPV test. In many cases, a second Pap test comes back negative because the HPV cleared out of your system.
If your Pap smear shows moderate to severe cellular changes, or a repeat Pap smear comes back positive, we do a colposcopy. During a colposcopy, we use a magnifying lens to examine your cervix, identify abnormal cells, and remove them.
In the first and second stages, removing the tissues prevents cervical cancer. However, all the tissues go to the lab and their results confirm that all abnormal cells are gone. If you were in an advanced stage, the lab determines if the cancer has spread.
The HPV vaccine prevents an infection by building your immunity to the virus. The shots are most effective when given before you have an HPV infection. For this reason, they’re recommended for preteens who are 9-12 years old, as well as for people up to age 26 who didn’t get them earlier.
You can also get the vaccine any time up to the age of 45. However, its effectiveness diminishes if you were already exposed to HPV.
If it's time for your Pap smear or you want to learn more about the vaccine, call Karen F. Brodman, MD, PLLC, or book an appointment with us online.