While cervical cancer used to be the leading cause of cancer death for women in the U.S., “cervical cancer is now the most rare of all the gynecological cancers,” according to Denny Martin, D.O., an assistant professor and associate chair of the department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Biology at Michigan State University.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 12,042 women in the U.S. were diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2012 (the most recent year numbers are available) and 4,074 women died from the disease.
“There’s almost this complacency because most people haven’t heard of someone with cervical cancer,” says Lauren Streicher, M.D., an associate professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “Early detection is quite good if someone gets regular Pap tests.”
Pap tests (also known as pap smears), in which a doctor collects cells from your cervix, are specifically designed to test for cervical cancer and pre-cancer in women, says Streicher in an interview with Self.com.
Pap tests can detect cellular changes before cancer occurs, says Martin. Since the progression rate is five to seven years, “we can often detect it before it becomes cancer,” he says.
Cervical cancer starts in the lining of the cervix, which connects the uterus to the vagina, but it can spread. While most cervical cancers are squamous cell carcinomas, a slow-growing form, it’s possible to develop an adenocarcinoma, which is an aggressive form of the cancer, says Streicher.
The latter is rare, but Streicher says there is some concern that the new recommendation from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists that a woman get a Pap test every two to three years (instead of every year) may allow these cancers to progress undetected for too long.
If abnormal cells are detected early, doctors may choose to simply closely monitor the woman and do another Pap within a year. They can also remove clusters of abnormal cells, Martin says, and continue to monitor a woman to see if anything else surfaces.
For women who are actually diagnosed with cervical cancer, a hysterectomy (and removal of the cervix) may be required, as well as radiation therapy.
If cervical cancer is caught early, the prognosis is usually very good. “The stage one survival rate after five years is 91 percent, and stage two is 88 percent—it’s good with early diagnosis,” says Martin. “However, the stage four survival rate is 14 percent.”
Unfortunately, there aren’t many symptoms of cervical cancer. “The most common is vaginal bleeding, on its own or after intercourse,” says Martin. “A patient may also have something as simple as development of a new vaginal discharge. Rarely is pain associated as a symptom.”
There are a few things you can do to lower your cervical cancer risk. Since the cancer is typically caused by human papilloma virus (HPV), Streicher stresses the importance of having the HPV vaccine—even if you’re above the age of 26 (the recommended age before which you have the series of shots). If you’re in a monogamous relationship and over 26, she says it’s not as much of a concern, but she urges single women over the age of 26 to consider it. “It is well worth the money to get vaccinated because it’s going to make an enormous difference,” she says.
Safe sex, particularly using barrier methods like condoms, is also an important preventative measure, says Martin, as well as avoiding smoking, since women who smoke have a higher rate of progression from abnormal cells to cancer.
Streicher also recommends having your doctor look at your cervix during non-Pap years to look for abnormalities. “If someone has cancer, very often I will see a growth on the cervix,” she explains.
And finally, experts stress the importance of getting regular Pap tests for early detection. “This is a preventable cancer,” says Streicher. “If you do the right things and stay on top of it, you should be fine.”