Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that develops in a woman's cervix. The cervix is the entrance to the womb from the vagina. Over the course of many years, the cells lining the surface of the cervix undergo a series of changes. In rare cases, these changed cells can become cancerous.
Cervical cancer often has no symptoms in its early stages. If you have symptoms, the most common is unusual vaginal bleeding which can occur after sex, in between periods or after menopause.
Abnormal bleeding doesn't mean that you have cervical cancer, but it's important to see your doctor as soon as possible. If your doctor suspects you might have cervical cancer, you should be referred to see a specialist as soon as possible.
Cervical cancer is one of few cancers where screening can detect pre-cancerous lesions. Having a regular Pap test (sometimes referred to as a 'Pap smear') is the best form of detection.
The National Cervical Screening Program (NCSP) recommends women between the ages of 18 (or two years after first sexual intercourse, whichever is later) and 69 years should have a Pap test every two years.
For further information visit the NCSP website at www.cancerscreening.gov.au or contact your doctor, health centre or family planning clinic, or phone 13 15 56 (for the cost of a local call).
If cervical cancer is suspected, you will be referred to a gynaecologist who is a specialist in treating conditions of the female reproductive system.
A referral will be recommended if the results of your Pap test suggest that there are abnormalities in the cells of your cervix. However, finding abnormalities does not mean that you have cervical cancer.
If cervical cancer is diagnosed at an early stage, it is usually possible to treat it using surgery. In some cases it is also possible to leave the womb in place, though sometimes it will need to be removed. The surgical procedure that is used to remove the womb is known as a 'hysterectomy'. Radiotherapy is an alternative to surgery for some women with early stage cervical cancer.
More advanced cases of cervical cancer are usually treated using a combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
Source: NHS Choices, UK (Cervical cancer, Diagnosing cervical cancer)
How cervical cancer affects your daily life will depend on what stage your disease is at, and what treatment you are having.
Many women with cervical cancer have a radical hysterectomy. This is a major operation, and it takes around six to twelve weeks to recover from it. During this time you need to avoid lifting (for example, children, heavy shopping bags) and heavy housework. You won’t be able to drive for a period of time ranging from three to eight weeks after the operation. Most women will need eight to twelve weeks off work after a radical hysterectomy.
Some of the treatments for cervical cancer, particularly chemotherapy and radiotherapy, can make you very tired. You may need to take a break from some of your normal activities for a while. Don’t be afraid to ask for practical help from family and friends if you need it.
Source: NHS Choices, UK (Living with cervical cancer)
Facts & figures
- Cervical cancer is the 13th most common cancer affecting Australian women, with about 780 new cases diagnosed in 2008 and around 200 deaths in 2007.
- The most common type of cervical cancer (squamous) usually takes more than 10 years to develop.
- Regular cervical screening using the Pap test aims to reduce the incidence of cervical cancer by identifying treatable pre-cancerous abnormalities.
- A Pap test every two years can prevent the most common form of cervical cancer in up to 90% of cases.
- During the last decade a greater understanding of the natural history of cervical cancer has developed and it is now recognised that cervical cancer is a rare outcome of persistent infection with human papillomavirus (HPV). The infection with HPV is necessary, although not sufficient, for the development of cancer.
Source: Department of Health and Ageing (National Cervical Screening Program, Program Fact Sheet)