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Cervical cancer is cancer that begins in the uterine cervix, the lower end of the uterus that contacts the upper vagina. Survival rates among African American women are lower than for any other racial or ethnic group in the US. Cervical cancer remains a common cause of cancer and cancer death in women in developing countries without access to screening (Pap testing) for cervical cancer or vaccines against human papillomaviruses (HPVs).
Cervical cancer is different from cancer that begins in other regions of the uterus (uterine or endometrial cancer). If detected early, cervical cancer has a very high cure rate. Vaccination against HPVs, which are known to cause cervical cancer, is an effective preventive measure.
How do women get cervical cancer? What causes cervical cancer?
Almost all cervical cancers are caused by longstanding infection with one of the HPVs. HPV infection is very common, and most people with HPV infection do not develop cancer. There are over 100 types of HPVs, and only certain types have been linked to cancers. Other HPV types cause benign warts on the skin or genitals. The so-called “high risk” HPV types have been shown to cause cancers of the cervix as well as cancers of the penis in men. HPVs can also cause cancers of the mouth, throat, and anus in people of both sexes.
HPV infection is spread through sexual contact or skin-to-skin contact. Many studies have shown that HPV infection is common and that a majority of people will be infected with HPV at some point in life. The infection typically resolves on its own. In some women, the HPV infection persists and causes precancerous changes in the cells of the cervix. These changes can be detected by regular cervical cancer screening(known as Pap testing ). With Pap testing, a superficial sample of cells from the cervix is taken with a brush or swab during a routine pelvic examination and sent to a laboratory for analysis of the cells' appearance.
Dysplasia is abnormal-appearing cells that are not cancers but may be precancerous. Dysplasia of the cervix identified at the time of Pap testing is referred to as a squamous intraepithelial lesion (SIL). Cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN) is another term used to classify precancerous changes in the cervix that are seen on tissue samples such as biopsies. Precancerous changes in the cervix such as CIN and SIL can typically be treated, which can prevent the development of cancer.
The cervix itself contains two types of cells- the lining cells of the outer cervix, known as squamous cells, and the cells that line the interior channel of the cervix. These interior cells have features of glandular cells. The point at which the squamous and glandular cells meet is known as the transition zone, and it is in this area that most cervical precancers and cancers begin to grow. Up to 90% of cervical cancers arise from the squamous cells and are called squamous cell carcinomas, with most of the remainder coming from the glandular cells (adenocarcinomas).
Cervical cancer may not produce any symptoms or signs. In particular, early stage cervical cancers, like precancerous changes, typically do not produce symptoms. Symptoms may develop when the cervical cancer cells start to invade surrounding tissues.
Stages of Cervical cancer
The stage of any cancer refers to the extent to which it has spread in the body at the time of diagnosis. Staging cancers is an important part of determining the best treatment plan. Both the FIGO (International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics) system and the AJCC (American Joint Committee on Cancer) have developed systems to stage cervical cancer. Both systems are based on the tumor extent, spread to anylymph nodes, and distant spread. Cervical cancer is classified in stages from 0 to IV, with many subcategories within each numerical stage..
In general, the stages of cervical cancer are as follows:
* Stage 0: This stage is not a true invasive cancer. The abnormal cells are only on the surface of the cervix, as in CIN 3. This stage is not included in the FIGO system and is referred to as carcinoma in situ (CIS).
*Stage I: There is a small amount of tumor present that has not spread to any lymph nodes or distant sites.
*Stage II: The cancer has spread beyond the cervix and uterus, but does not invade the pelvic walls or the lower part of the vagina.
*Stage III: The cancer has grown into the lower part of the vagina or the walls of the pelvis. The tumor may be blocking the ureters (tubes that carry urine from the kidneys to the bladder). There is no spread to other sites in the body.
*Stage IV: This is the most advanced stage, in which the cancer has spread to the bladder or rectum, or to sites in other areas of the body.
Signs and Symptoms Of Cervical Cancer
Symptoms and signs of cervical cancer include:
* Abnormal vaginal bleeding
* Vaginal bleeding after menopause
* Vaginal bleeding after sex
* Bleeding or spotting between periods
* Longer or heavier menstrual periods than usual
* Other abnormal vaginal discharge
* Pain during sexual intercourse
It is important to note that these symptoms are not specific for cervical cancer and can be caused by a variety of conditions.
What are the risk factors for cervical cancer?
As described previously, cervical cancers are caused by infection with one of the high-risk HPV types. However, since not all people who are infected with HPV will develop cancer, it is likely that other factors also play a role in the development of cervical cancer. Certain risk factors have been identified that increase a woman's risk for developing cervical cancer:
• Tobacco smoking
• HIV infection
• Immune system suppression
• Past or current Chlamydia infection
• Long-term use of oral contraceptives (although the risk returns to normal when thecontraceptive pills are discontinued)
• Having 3 or more full-term pregnancies
• Having a first full-term pregnancy before age 17
• Family history of cervical cancer
What are methods of treatment for cervical cancer?
This is often performed to remove the cancer, especially in early-stage tumors. Hysterectomy (removal of the uterus) may be performed, but other procedures that preserve the ability to carry a pregnancy can be done in younger women with small tumors. Both a cone biopsy (removal of the inside of the cervix where most tumors begin) and a trachelectomy (removal of the upper vagina and cervix) are options that can be used for small tumors in order to preserve fertility. With more advanced cancers, a procedure known as pelvic exenteration removes the uterus, surrounding lymph nodes, and parts of other organs surrounding the cancer, depending on its location.
This is another common treatment for cervical cancer. Both external beam radiation therapy (radiation therapy administered from an outside source of radiation) and brachytherapy (radiation therapy that involves the insertion of radioactive sources near the tumor for a fixed period of time) have been used for cervical cancer.
These two types of therapy have also been used together. If radiation therapy is given as the main treatment for the cancer, it is often combined with chemotherapy. Side effects of radiation therapy include fatigue, diarrhea, skin changes, nausea, vomiting, irritation of the bladder, vaginal irritation and discharge, and sometimes menstrual changes or early menopause, if the ovaries are exposed to radiation.
Chemo may be recommended together with radiation therapy (chemoradiation) for some stages of chemotherapy. It may also be given before or after radiation treatment. Chemotherapy drugs commonly used for cervical cancer include cisplatin and 5-fluorouracil. Chemotherapy may also be the treatment of choice for cervical cancer that has come back after treatment. Side effects of chemotherapy include nausea,fatigue, vomiting, hair loss, and mouth sores.
This refers to drugs that have been specifically developed, or targeted, to interrupt cellular processes that promote growth of cancer cells. Bevacizumab (Avastin) is an example of targeted therapy. It is a drug that inhibits the ability of tumors to make new blood vessels, which is required for tumor growth. This kind of targeted therapy is sometimes used for advanced cervical cancers.
Can cervical cancer be prevented? What is the cervical cancer vaccine?
Cervical cancer can often be prevented with vaccination and modern screening techniques that detect precancerous changes in the cervix. The incidence of cervical cancers in the developed world declined significantly after the introduction of Pap screening to detect precancerous changes, which can be treated before they progress to become cancer.
Moreover, vaccines are available against the common types of HPV that cause cervical cancer. Gardasil, Gardasil-9, and Cervarix are three different HPV vaccines. Gardasil has been shown to be 100% effective in preventing infection by four common HPV types (6, 11, 16, 18) in young people who not previously infected with HPV. Gardasil 9, a newer version of the vaccine, was approved in December 2014 and provides immunity to 9 HPV types (6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52 and 58). Cervarix prevents infection from HPV types 16 and 18, which are the two HPV types most commonly associated with cervical cancer.
Note : Vaccination should occur before sexual activity to offer the full benefit of the vaccine. The CDC recommends that 11- to 12-year-old girls receive the HPV vaccine, and young women ages 13 through 26 should get the vaccine if they did not receive any or all doses when they were younger. Gardasil is also approved for use in males aged 9 to 26, and the CDC recommends Gardasil for all boys aged 11 or 12 years, and for males aged 13 through 21 years who did not receive the full three vaccination series. Men can receive the vaccine up to age 26.
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