Cervical cancer affects the neck of the womb known as the cervix, where it opens up into the vagina. This area dilates fully to allow a baby to pass through the birth canal during labour.
Cervical cancer is the only gynaecological cancer that can be detected early through regular screening and vaccination, with 99% of cases caused by HPV, or Human Papillomavirus (pap-ah-LO-mah-VI-rus).
There are 2 cells that make up the cervix – squamous cells that protect the outside of the cervix, and glandular cells which are mostly inside the cervix and responsible for fluid and mucus production commonly seen during ovulation.
Thus, any changes to these 2 types of cells can be indicative of cancer may present themselves in the following symptoms.
Signs of Cervical Cancer
Even though these symptoms are also very common in other conditions, it is recommended that you consult a doctor if you notice any of these changes in your body:
- Unusual vaginal bleeding
- The most common symptom of cervical cancer is abnormal vaginal bleeding between periods, during or after sex, as well as after menopause.
- Pain or discomfort during sexual intercourse
- Vaginal discharge that smells unpleasant
- Pain in the pelvis, or the area between the hip bones
Cancer of the cervix is detected with a Pap smear. Early changes to the cervical cells can be picked up through a Pap smear test, where treatment can then be given to prevent cervical cancer from developing. The Singapore Cancer Society offers free HPV screening and Pap smear tests if you meet their criteria.
Because 99% of cervical cancer is due to infections caused by the HPV, HPV vaccinations are recommended especially to women from 9 to 26 years old. It is most effective if administered before one’s first sexual exposure. The HPV vaccine isn’t recommended for pregnant women or people who are moderately or severely ill.
To diagnose cervical cancer, a pelvic examination is usually first performed by a doctor, followed by an HPV test and a colposcopy which involves looking at the cervix through a magnifying scope. A biopsy will then be performed if deemed necessary.
This is the most common treatment of early cervical cancer, with various options of removal of cancer cells depending on one’s cervical cancer stage and treatment goals:
- Removal of only the cancerous (or pre-cancerous cells) of the cervix. This is the option for earliest detection and for women who still wish to preserve their fertility.
- Removal of cervix and surrounding tissues, while preserving the upper uterus for future pregnancy.
- Removal of uterus and cervix
- Removal of ovaries and fallopian tubes if the cancer has spread to these organs.
Radiation Therapy (or Radiotherapy)
Another effective treatment for early cervical cancer, radiation therapy involves the use of high-energy radiation to kill off cancer cells or prevent them from growing. It is commonly used after surgery if the cancer has spread to other areas, or as a preventive measure for patients believed to be at a higher risk of recurrence of the cancer.
In other cases, radiation therapy is combined with chemotherapy for a more effective treatment.
A chemotherapy drug is usually administered intravenously (or into the vein) so that it enters the bloodstream to reach all parts of the body. While it is worth noting that chemotherapy may also damage healthy cells in the process, it is also effective to target cancer cells that have already spread to other areas beyond the cervix.
Cervical Cancer can be prevented from developing if detected early! This article is part of our Gynaecological Cancers series. To know more about other Gynaecological Cancers, continue reading about Ovarian Cancer and Uterine Cancer.
- Singapore Cancer Society (2019). About Women Gynaecological Cancers. Retrieved from https://www.singaporecancersociety.org.sg/ events/campaigns/women-s-gynaecological-cancer-campaign.html
- Foundation for Women’s Cancer (2019). Gynaecologic Cancer Basics. Retrieved from https://www.foundationforwomenscancer.org/gyneco- logic-cancers/gynecologic-cancer-basics/frequently-asked-questions/
- Foundation for Women’s Cancer(2019). Cervical Cancer. Retrieved from https://www.foundationforwomenscancer.org/gynecologic-cancers/ cancer-types/cervical/
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