What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is a malignancy that develops in the cells of the cervix. Like other areas of the body the cervical cells can grow abnormally and form tumours. As a rule cervical cancer normally takes many years to develop and is usually preceded by abnormal changes in cervical cells (that are not cancerous).
The cervix is located in the lower part of the uterus, protruding into the vagina. Through a small opening in the cervix, the cervical canal leads into the uterus from the top of the vagina. The cervix can be viewed by using a speculum (tool used by health professional during a pap smear) to gently hold open the walls of the vagina. The section of the cervix viewed is known as the ectocervix. The canal leading away from the ectocervix into the uterus is known as the endocervical canal.
There are a number of known risk factors for developing cervical cancer. They include:
- Presence of Human Papilloma Virus (HPV).
- Inadequate or no Pap smear screening.
- Early commencement of sexual activity (intercourse), which leads to a greater chance of contracting HPV.
- Sexually transmitted diseases or infections.
- Previous abnormal Pap smears.
- Exposure to diethylstilboestrol (DES) - a drug taken to reduce miscarriage in the 1950s.
Symptoms of cervical cancer
- Irregular bleeding from the vagina between periods, post menopausal or after intercourse.
- Smelly, brown or blood stained vaginal discharge.
- Discomfort during sexual intercourse.
- A Pap smear test is designed to detect early changes in the cells of the cervix which may later lead to cancer. Early detection of cervical cancer by Pap smear testing remains our best weapon to combat the morbidity and mortality associated with the disease.
- When a Pap smear is performed, a small sample of cells from around the cervix is gently collected and placed on a slide. This slide is then sent for examination under a microscope.
- All women aged 18 to 70 years who have ever been sexually active should have regular Pap smears every two years.
Routine screening is not recommended for women under 18 years of age even if they are sexually active. Women over 70 years may cease screening if they have had two normal Pap smears within the last five years
If every eligible woman had a Pap smear every two years, 90 per cent of cervical cancer could be prevented.
The information available on this page should not be used as a substitute for advice from a properly qualified medical professional who can advise you about your own individual medical needs. It is not intended to constitute medical advice and is provided for general information purposes only. See our Disclaimer.