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Understanding cervical cancer: signs, causes & risk factors

Cervical cancer was once the leading cause of cancer death for women in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Thanks to regular testing and the introduction of the HPV vaccine, the number of cancer cases and deaths has dropped significantly.
Vaccination and early detection have made it one of the most preventable forms of cancer.
Cervical cancer begins in the cervix, the lower part of the uterus. The cervix connects the uterus to the vagina (birth canal).
Cancer starts when the body’s healthy cells change and begin to grow abnormally. The DNA of the cells develops mutations that cause the cells to grow out of control. Over time, the growth can lead to a mass and eventually spread elsewhere in the body if left untreated.
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common cause cause of cervical cancer. HPV is a sexually transmitted virus, and a majority of people who are sexually active will be exposed to HPV in their lifetime. Vaccination can prevent acquiring this infection.
Most HPV infections are benign and disappear on their own. When the virus does not disappear, it can lead to cervical cancer.
Other factors, such as smoking and having HIV (the virus that causes AIDS), can also increase your risk of cervical cancer.
Find a doctor: Choose from the experts at Sanford Health
Cervical cancer can take years to develop. The beginning stages of cervical cancer produce little to no symptoms.
At an early stage, cervical cancer is often curable. Left untreated, cervical cancer can spread to other parts of the body, making it more difficult to cure.
As the cancer progresses, symptoms may include:
If you experience any of these symptoms, notify your provider. They can help determine the cause and provide treatment recommendations.
The best way to know if you have cervical cancer is through screening.
Fortunately, regular testing and follow-up appointments make cervical cancer the easiest gynecologic cancer to prevent, according to the CDC.
A Pap smear or Pap test is used to find precancers, or cell changes on the cervix that could become cancerous if not treated properly.
A Pap test result may be normal, unclear or abnormal.
An HPV test is used to find the virus that can cause cell changes.
An HPV test result may be positive or negative.
Some steps you can take to reduce your risk of cervical cancer include:
Preventive screenings are key to catching diseases early when they’re most treatable – and before they become serious. Learn more about preventive care.
Information in this article was reviewed by Nicole Woodley, M.D., a specialist in obstetrics and gynecology at Sanford Health.

Posted In Cancer, Cancer Screenings

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