Fact-Checked By : Dr. Tara Scott, OB-GYN
January is Cervical Cancer Month! As a woman, cervical cancer awareness needs to go beyond just wearing a teal and white ribbon during the month of January. Here’s everything you should know—that you probably haven’t been taught—about cervical cancer.
What Is Your Cervix?
Your cervix is located at the bottom of your uterus. It creates a canal between your uterus and vagina.
The cervix is a very important part of your anatomy. When you’re not pregnant, it acts as a barrier to keep you healthy. For example, the reason you never have to worry about your tampon or menstrual cup getting lost in your uterus is that your cervix creates a barrier. If you're pregnant, your cervix keeps the baby in place during your gestation and when you’re giving birth, it dilates. Cervixes are kind of incredible when you think about them.
What Is Cervical Cancer?
Much like other cancers, cervical cancer occurs when the cells in your cervix develop mutations. These mutations tell the cells in your cervix to reproduce rapidly. Healthy cells know to die off after a certain amount of time, whereas mutated cells are programmed to never die off, even as they multiply. Unchecked, this can create a tumor or mass.
There are two types of cervical cancer: squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma. According to the Mayo Clinic, squamous cell carcinoma is the most common type of cervical cancer. It occurs when the squamous cells—which make up the lining of the outer part of the cervix—mutate. Adenocarcinoma, on the other hand, occurs in the cells that line the cervical canal.
What Causes Cervical Cancer?
Unfortunately, there’s not a straightforward answer to this question. There’s a lot of research still being conducted to fully understand what causes cervical cancer. However, scientists do know that it has something to do with the human papillomavirus (HPV). The CDC notes that “HPV is most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States.” Over time, studies should be able to reveal more about HPV and its link to cervical cancer.
Who Is More Susceptible To Cervical Cancer?
To start out with, anyone with a cervix should be aware of cervical cancer. However, there are some elements that have the potential to raise your risk factor. These include:
- Having a family history of cervical cancer
- Increased likelihood of exposure to HPV due to many sexual partners
- Having sex at a young age
- If you’ve had/have other sexually transmitted infections Smoking
- If you took diethylstilbestrol (DES), a miscarriage prevention medication administered during the 1950s.
- Weakened immune system
None of these risk factors is anything to feel embarrassed about. Make sure you talk to your doctor if you identify with any of the above risk factors, so they know to test you regularly.
Can Cervical Cancer Spread To Other Parts Of Your Body?
Cervical cancer can metastasis to other parts of your body if left unchecked. That’s why it’s so important to be screened regularly, so you’re able to catch it early. The American Cancer Society predicted that in 2021 “about 14,480 new cases of invasive cervical cancer will be diagnosed and about 4,290 women will die from cervical cancer.” Thankfully, due to the ability to screen for cervical cancer, pre-cancers are much more likely to be diagnosed.
How Can You Prevent Cervical Cancer?
There are a few actions you can take to prevent cervical cancer. To reduce your risk:
Get vaccinated against HPV: Next time you see your doctor, talk to them about getting the HPV vaccine, because it can aid in cervical cancer prevention by protecting you against HPV.
Regular PAP tests: Sure, no one enjoys getting their PAP test, but the good news is that whenever they do these tests, they look for signs of cancerous cells. Getting regular PAP tests once you’re 21 years old can help you detect cervical cancer before it becomes a problem.
Get tested for STIs : This testing will tell you whether you have HPV or any other STIs that could increase your risk of cervical cancer. Use a condom during sex: Condoms help prevent the spread of STIs, which can raise your risk factor for cervical cancer.
Limit your sexual partners: This isn’t meant to be “sex-shamey.” Limiting your number of sexual partners legitimately reduces your likelihood of getting HPV, therefore reducing your risk of cervical cancer.
Talk to your family: It’s important to know if you have a family history of cervical cancer. Be open with your family about your concerns.
Avoid smoking: Smoking increases your risk of cervical cancer, so if you don’t smoke or stop smoking, you reduce your risk.
What Are The Signs Of Cervical Cancer?
If you have one or more of these symptoms, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have cervical cancer, but you should set up an appointment with your doctor. Here’s a list of symptoms that you should look out for:
- Pain in your pelvis
- Pain during sex
- Vaginal discharge that smells bad and is bloody, clear, and heavy
- Irregular bleeding from your vagina—like after sex, between menstruation, or after you’ve gone through menopause
How Can You Get Checked For Cervical Cancer?
When you go in for your PAP smear, your gynecologist will swab and test for signs of cervical cancer. If your test comes back abnormal, that doesn’t automatically mean that you have cervical cancer. It may mean that pre-cancerous cells were found. You will need to undergo more tests to determine if you have cervical cancer and what steps should be taken next. If you don’t have a primary care physician, look into going to Planned Parenthood, your local county health department, or a women’s clinic.
Talk to your friends and the other women in your family about cervical cancer. There’s a good chance that your loved ones might not know how to mitigate risk factors or have been avoiding their regular PAP smear. Spreading awareness about cervical cancer could save your loved one’s life.