It is the one word that evokes fear in every heart – cancer. The definition of cancer is abnormal cell
growth with the potential to spread or invade surrounding cells and other parts of the body.
Cancer cells that spread are called malignant and cancer cells that are do not spread are called
Cervical Cancer is cancer unique to women. The cervix is a part of the woman’s reproductive
system. It is the passageway located where the uterus and vagina meet. Cancer of the cervix
occurs when the cells grow abnormally and potentially invade and destroy the surrounding tissue
and cells. It is normally slow-growing cancer, which allows for early detection and
intervention if caught. Pre-cancerous changes are detected when women are in their 20s and 30s.
However, the average age of diagnosis is when women are in their 50s. (www.webmd.ca)
The most common cause of cervical cancer is infection with human papillomavirus (HPV).
HPV is spread through sexual contact or skin to skin contact (www.medicinenet.com). A
vaccine has become available in Alberta in recent years; however, it is currently given to girls in
Grade 6 to 12. Adults who wish to receive the HPV vaccine can contact the nearest public health
office to see if they are eligible, although there may be a cost to the individual.
Signs and symptoms of cervical cancer should not be ignored.
- Abnormal bleeding between or after menstrual cycles
- Heavier than usual menstrual bleeding
- Pain during sexual intercourse
- Unexplained and persistent back or pelvic pain
- Post-menopausal bleeding
- Difficulty urinating
(For a full list of signs and symptoms of cervical cancer, please refer to the Canadian Cancer
Society website at www.cancer.ca)
Detection of cervical cancer and HPV infection is done through regular examination and pap
smears. The scraping of the cervix taken during the pap smear is sent to a laboratory where it is
then analyzed for abnormal cells. If abnormal cells are found, the individual undergoes more
testing in order to determine the stage of cancer.
- Abnormal cells are found only on the surface of the cervix and have not invaded the
- A small tumour is present but has not grown into the surrounding tissue.
- A tumour is present in the cervix and uterus but has not invaded the pelvic walls or vagina
- The cancer has invaded the vagina, cervix or walls of the pelvis. It may be restricting
urine flow due to the tumour pressing on the ureters (tubes that carry the urine from the
kidney to the bladder).
- The cancer has spread from the cervix to the surrounding organs including the bladder
and/or rectum and may have metastasized to other areas in the body. This is the worst
stage of cancer.
Factors that may increase your risk of developing cervical cancer include:
- HPV – This virus is transmitted mainly through sexual intercourse. In order to decrease your risk of developing HPV, use condoms during any type of sexual intercourse; choose to not have casual sex, get regular PAP smears and HPV testing; if possible, get the HPV vaccine and encourage your partner to do the same. Males can carry human papillomavirus and it can cause genital warts, penile cancer, anal cancer and also spread the virus to their sexual partners.
- Smoking – Smoking exposes the body to chemicals and other harmful substances that are
absorbed by the body. According to the American Cancer Society, women who smoke
are twice as likely to be diagnosed with cervical cancer as non-smokers. Smoking also
affects the immune system, making it harder for the body to fight off infections and
abnormal cells. Your doctor can work with you to develop a smoking cessation plan.
- Poor Nutrition – This includes being overweight and not eating adequate amounts of
vegetables and fruit. Maintaining a healthy weight and body mass index is important to
decrease your risk of a multitude of diseases. If needed, consult your family doctor or a
nutritionist to work with you and achieve your goals for a healthier you.
- A weakened Immune System – A weakened immune system can be caused by smoking,
having a weakened immune system due to autoimmune disease, HIV/AIDS or those with
an organ transplant.
- Pregnancy – Hormonal changes during pregnancy, can put women at an increased risk of
developing cervical cancer. Also, women who have had 3 or more full-term pregnancies
are at an increased risk though the cause has not been established at this time
Treatments will vary depending upon the stage of cancer, individual patients’ age and
personal beliefs. There are several treatment options available including surgery, radiation
therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy. The patient and health care team
collaborate to decide on a care plan. By taking into account your risk factors and changing what
you can (healthy diet, weight maintenance, stop smoking, regular physical checkups, safe sex
practices) you can reduce your risk of developing not only cervical cancer but other types of
illnesses as well.