Every year, more than 13,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer, formerly one of the leading causes of cancer-related deaths for women in the United States.
“It’s important to keep in mind that cervical cancer often does not have any signs or symptoms in the very early stages,” says Peter Frederick, MD, FACOG. “That’s why it’s so important to get cervical cancer screening like the Pap test to detect cancerous or precancerous cells, so it can be caught at an early stage, when it can be treated more successfully.”
One of the biggest developments in cervical cancer research in recent years was the determination that the vast majority of cervical cancers are caused by certain strains of human papillomavirus (HPV). “By testing for the presence of cancer-causing HPV, we can improve the accuracy of our screening. Women who test negative for that type of HPV are unlikely to go on to develop cervical cancer in the next few years,” Dr. Frederick says.
As a result, some new screening strategies now use the Pap test — which typically is included in a regular gynecological exam — either alone or in combination with an HPV test, depending on a woman’s age and risk factors.
“One of the benefits of these screening strategies is we’ve been able to spare women unnecessary biopsies, and we can safely screen lower-risk women less often,” Dr. Frederick says. “It’s best to speak with your healthcare provider if you have questions about how often you should be screened for cervical cancer.”
Another promising advance is the development of very safe and effective vaccines that protect against the most common strains of HPV. The Gardasil 9 vaccine prevents about 90% of HPV infections that cause cervical cancer and genital warts. Widespread adoption of this vaccine has the potential to significantly decrease cervical cancer and other cancers and pre-cancers caused by HPV, including some that affect men.
Although regular screening can detect most abnormalities of the cervix before they progress to cancer or cause symptoms, cervical cancer sometimes is diagnosed at a more advanced stage.
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“If that occurs, symptoms can include abnormal vaginal bleeding, whether that's bleeding after intercourse or bleeding in between menstrual periods,” Dr. Frederick says. “Sometimes, pelvic pain or changes in urination or bowel movements can also be a sign of more advanced cervical cancer.
If you have any of these symptoms, it's important to bring them to the attention of your physician.”