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Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer is a cancer of the cervix, or the outer entrance to the uterus (womb). It develops slowly, long after abnormal or "dysplastic" changes may be detected in the cervical cells. Worldwide, cervical cancer affects 450,000 women per year and it is the third most common cancer to affect women in the world (after skin cancer and breast cancer).  It usually affects women between the ages of 30 and 55. 

Cervical cancer is most frequently diagnosed by routine Pap smears; a new test called the "DNA with Pap" may now enhance that diagnostic ability.  Although cervical cancer is most frequently diagnosed in women without symptoms-or unaware of their symptoms-there are subtle symptoms.  These include bleeding after intercourse (sometimes just spotting); excessive vaginal discharge; or abnormal, irregular bleeding between periods. 

Fortunately, a probable cause has been identified. Recent medical studies have confirmed that the human papilloma virus (HPV) is associated with most cases of cervical cancer.  In addition to having had an HPV infection, other risk factors for cervical cancer include:

  • history of genital warts, herpes simplex or any STD
  • history of previous abnormal pap smears
  • smoking, or abusing other substances, including alcohol
  • having a mother who took the drug DES (diethylstilbestrol) during pregnancy to prevent miscarriage (1940-1970)
  • having HIV/AIDS
  • having impaired immune system function
  • having a male sexual partner who has had a sexual partner with cervical cancer
  • having a family history of cervical cancer
  • lower socioeconomic status
  • having a personal or family history of lower genital tract dysplasia or cancer

Over the past 50 years, the mortality from cervical cancer-once one of the most common and lethal cancers in women in the United States-has decreased by 74%, mostly due to the widespread use of the Pap smear.   When cervical cancer is detected early, the five-year survival rate is more than 90 percent Unfortunately, most women who die from cervical cancer have not had a Pap smear in more than 5 years. In 2002, apr. 4,100 women died from cervical cancer in the United States.  Estimates are that more than 12,000 more women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2003.   The good news is that thanks to advances in cervical cancer prevention, screening and treatment, their prognosis is likely to be good. The most exciting advance on the horizon is the development of an HPV vaccine to prevent the most common type of virus that causes cervical cancer.

Created: 11/6/2003  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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