The topic of cervical cancer has gotten a lot of attention in recent years. The disease is caused by out-of-control growth of abnormal cells on the cervix (the lower part of the uterus). The good news about cervical cancer is that, in many cases, it can be prevented completely or found in its earliest stages during routine Pap smears. While a woman may never have symptoms of abnormal cervical cells (other than getting an abnormal result during a Pap), symptoms may occur if cervical cancer is present. Most commonly, symptoms of cervical cancer include:
- Blood-tinged vaginal discharge
Being aware of one’s own cervical cancer risk is beneficial for all women, as it can encourage discussion with their doctors about screening options and may even prompt them to recognize possible symptoms earlier. Most cervical cancers are caused by a sexually transmitted infection called human papillomavirus (HPV). Therefore, individuals who have been diagnosed with a certain form of HPV known to be capable of causing cancerous changes over time may be at a higher risk of developing cervical cancer. Keep in mind that not all forms of HPV cause cancer.
Similarly, high-risk sexual behaviors such as multiple partners or unsafe sex can make individuals more susceptible to contracting HPV or developing cervical cancer. Women with compromised immune systems (such as those with HIV) and women who smoke cigarettes or are exposed to secondhand smoke are also at higher risk.
The keys to cervical health are minimizing risk factors, along with getting regular gynecologic exams and Pap smears. If these indicate that abnormal cells are present, patients can either be closely monitored or have the abnormal cells removed before they have a chance to become cancerous.
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