For many years, cervical cancer was the most common cause of death among women. Today however, advanced technology allows doctors to diagnose cervical cancer and begin treatment much sooner. Pap tests to screen for cervical cancer has substantially decreased the number of women who lose their battle with this cancer. Cervical cancer affects the cervix which is a very narrow opening at the lower end of the uterus. The cervix normally remains closed but opens during labor to allow the baby to pass into and through the birth canal.
Cervical cancer develops with malignant cancer cells that begin to grow on the cervix’s surface. The cancer is slow growing and Pap smears will normally detect abnormal or precancerous cells long before the cancer begins to grow. When the cells of the cervix change and become abnormal, it is called dysplasia. Left untreated, dysplasia can lead to cervical cancer. Research has shown a direct link between the Human Papilloma Virus or HPV and cervical cancer. May women may experience infections from this virus but few of these will actually develop cancer. Most women who do develop cancer are predisposed to the disease. Most doctors agree that in order for HPV to turn into cancer, the infection must be chronic. If you have the HPV virus, it is more important than ever that you have regular Pap smears done. Chances are good that if you are getting regularly screenings, cancer will be caught before it has the opportunity to spread. Doctors can detect precancerous cells which can be removed before you develop full blown cervical cancer.
There are a number of common risk factors that you should be aware of. Women who do not schedule regular Pap smears or screenings are at a much higher risk for developing cervical cancer. You should schedule your Pap test every year unless your doctor advises you otherwise. Early detection is the key to receiving effective treatment. In addition, if you smoke or have a weak immune system you could also be at a higher risk for developing this disease.
There are other risk factors as well and discussing these risks with your gynecologist is important. If you have a common sexually transmitted disease called chlamydia or you eat very few fresh fruits and vegetables, are overweight, have HIV, take birth control or have had at least one multiple pregnancy that you carried full term you could be at a higher risk for developing cervical cancer. You can speak with your doctor about your risk for developing this disease and things that you can do that could potentially lower your risk factor.
If you have a direct family member such as a mother or sister who has been diagnosed with cervical cancer then you could also be predisposed to the disease. If your mother took the drug DES or diethylstilbestrol while she was pregnant with you, you could be at a higher risk. These are things that you will need to discuss with your gynecologist who can tell you more about your predisposition to this disease.
It is important that you have regular Pap smears, whether you have high risks factors for developing cervical cancer or not. Pap smears can detect any precancerous cells that you may have before they turn into cancer. Early detection gives you a much better chance of surviving cervical cancer. Pap smears are uncomfortable but could actually save your life. Speak with your doctor about how often you should schedule a Pap smear.