January is Cervical Health Awareness Month. Every year, over 13,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer. Over 4,000 of them die. Although the disease primarily strikes women in their 30s and 40s, around 15 percent of cervical cancer diagnoses are in women aged 65 and older. Luckily, the disease is easy to detect in its early stages, when treatment is both simpler and more effective. In this post, we look at the causes, symptoms, and diagnosis of cervical cancer.
What Is Cervical Cancer?
All cancers are the out-of-control growth of cells. Where that growth occurs determines the type of cancer. When it starts in the cells that line the cervix, it’s cervical cancer.
There are three main types of cervical cancer. Squamous cell carcinomas develop in the squamous cells of the exocervix (the part of the cervix that’s closest to the vagina). This is the most common type, accounting for 80 to 90 percent of all diagnoses.
Cervical adenocarcinoma develops in the endocervix, which is the area that’s closest to the uterus. This type has become more common in recent decades, accounting for around 10 to 15 percent of all cases.
The rarest type of cervical cancer includes both squamous cell carcinomas and adenocarcinomas. You may see it referred to as either adenosquamous carcinomas or mixed carcinomas.
What Causes Cervical Cancer?
There are numerous risk factors for cervical cancer, but one that’s been in a lot of headlines in recent years is human papillomavirus (HPV). Extremely common, the majority of Americans have HPV, which scientists have linked to numerous types of cancer. There is a vaccine to protect people against HPV, but it is most effective when administered during your teens and early 20s.
Other risk factors include smoking, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), a history of chlamydia, obesity, poor diet, long-term use of the Pill, and a family history of cervical cancer. Pregnancy also plays a role, with women who have three or more full-term pregnancies being at higher risk. In addition, women who were under 17 when they gave birth have a higher rate of cervical cancer than women who gave birth at age 25 or older. Finally, if your mother took a drug called diethylstilbestrol (DES) while pregnant with you, your risk is higher. However, only around one of every 1,000 DES “daughters” develops cervical cancer.
What Are the Symptoms of Cervical Cancer?
Cervical cancer rarely presents symptoms in its early stages. Typically, symptoms do not manifest until the disease spreads (metastasizes) to other body parts. This is one of the reasons regular screenings are so important. Signs and symptoms of cervical cancer include:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding, including bleeding after menopause and after sex
- Any unusual vaginal discharge
- Pain during sexual intercourse
How is Cervical Cancer Diagnosed?
The Pap (short for Papanicolaou) test is the most common method used to detect cervical cancer. During this exam, your healthcare provider takes a sample of cells from both the exocervix and endocervix. If you have had a hysterectomy or trachelectomy, your doctor instead takes cells from the upper part of the vagina. Then, the samples are prepared for screening before being examined in the lab.
In addition to the Pap test, the same sample cells may be used to conduct an HPV test.
Pap Test Best Practices
As the Pap test is examined using human eyes and a microscope, you want to follow a few tips to help ensure more accurate results. First, if you’re still menstruating, schedule your exam at least five days after your period ends. Next, during the three days prior to your Pap test, do not douche, have vaginal sex, or use tampons or any kind of vaginal creams or jellies.
Please note that a Pap test and a pelvic exam are NOT the same thing. Ask your doctor if he or she performed both. The American Cancer Society recommends the Pap test every three years for women up to age 65. If you have 20 years without pre-cancer findings AND had regular screenings for at least 10 years, you may stop testing once you turn 65.
Can Cervical Cancer be Prevented?
Yes, cervical cancer can be prevented. Squamous cell carcinoma, the most common form, begins with pre-cancerous changes. When found early, it can be treated before becoming a true cancer. Regular Pap tests are the most effective method for finding pre-cancer cells. In fact, most cervical cancer deaths occur in women who have either never had a Pap test or haven’t had one recently.
Healthy lifestyle changes may also help prevent cervical cancer. Don’t smoke, follow a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, and work with your doctor to maintain a healthy weight. If you’re sexually active, use a condom. Yes, even if you can no longer get pregnant. Although the HPV vaccine is most effective on teens and young adults, the virus knows no age limit and is transmitted via sexual activity.
Pap tests and pelvic exams help discover a variety of women’s cancers. Medicare covers both tests once every 24 months. If you have questions about your Medicare coverage, our licensed agents are here to help. Just call us toll-free at 855-350-8101.