Cervical Cancer: Symptoms, Causes and Prevention

Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that occurs in the cells of the cervix — the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina.

Various strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection, play a role in causing most cervical cancer.

When exposed to HPV, the body’s immune system typically prevents the virus from doing harm. In a small percentage of people, however, the virus survives for years, contributing to the process that causes some cervical cells to become cancer cells.

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Symptoms and early signs

In the early stages of cervical cancer, a person may experience no symptoms at all.

As a result, women should have regular cervical smear tests, or Pap tests.

A Pap test is preventive. It aims not to detect cancer but to reveal any cell changes that indicate the possible development of cancer so that a person can take early action to treat it.

The most common symptoms of cervical cancer are:

  • bleeding between periods
  • bleeding after sexual intercourse
  • bleeding in post-menopausal women
  • discomfort during sexual intercourse
  • vaginal discharge with a strong odor
  • vaginal discharge tinged with blood
  • pelvic pain

These symptoms can have other causes, including infection. Anyone who experiences any of these symptoms should see a doctor.

Causes

Cancer is the result of the uncontrolled division and growth of abnormal cells. Most of the cells in our body have a set lifespan, and, when they die, the body generates new cells to replace them.

Abnormal cells can have two problems:

  • they do not die
  • they continue dividing

This results in an excessive buildup of cells, which eventually forms a lump, or tumor. Scientists are not completely sure why cells become cancerous.

Risk factors

Some risk factors might increase the risk of developing cervical cancer. These include:

  • Many sexual partners. The greater your number of sexual partners — and the greater your partner’s number of sexual partners — the greater your chance of acquiring HPV.
  • Early sexual activity. Having sex at an early age increases your risk of HPV.
  • Other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Having other STIs — such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis and HIV/AIDS — increases your risk of HPV.
  • A weakened immune system. You may be more likely to develop cervical cancer if your immune system is weakened by another health condition and you have HPV.
  • Smoking. Smoking is associated with squamous cell cervical cancer.
  • Exposure to miscarriage prevention drug. If your mother took a drug called diethylstilbestrol (DES) while pregnant in the 1950s, you may have an increased risk of a certain type of cervical cancer called clear cell adenocarcinoma.

Prevention

To reduce your risk of cervical cancer:

  • Ask your doctor about the HPV vaccine. Receiving a vaccination to prevent HPV infection may reduce your risk of cervical cancer and other HPV-related cancers. Ask your doctor whether an HPV vaccine is appropriate for you.
  • Have routine Pap tests. Pap tests can detect precancerous conditions of the cervix, so they can be monitored or treated in order to prevent cervical cancer. Most medical organizations suggest beginning routine Pap tests at age 21 and repeating them every few years.
  • Practice safe sex. Reduce your risk of cervical cancer by taking measures to prevent sexually transmitted infections, such as using a condom every time you have sex and limiting the number of sexual partners you have.
  • Don’t smoke. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do smoke, talk to your doctor about strategies to help you quit.