Cervical cancer is the eighth most common cancer in the world and the fourth most frequently diagnosed cancer in women, with over 570,000 new cases in 2018, as stated by the World Health Organization.
In this article, we aim to clear up any confusion about HPV, cervical cancer, and how the two are related by answering the following questions:
- How does it happen?
- What are the symptoms?
- How is Human Papillomavirus related to cervical cancer?
- Could you be at risk?
What is Cervical Cancer?
Cervical cancer occurs when a cervical cell changes or behaves abnormally, forms cancer cells and then grows into nearby tissue.
As with other cancers, the biggest danger can be the spread to other parts of your body.
The cervix is part of your reproductive system, and as you may have guessed, is where cervical cancer occurs. It’s the narrow end of your uterus that opens out to your vagina – think of it as a tunnel from your vagina to your uterus.
Types of Cervical Cancer
The type of cervical cancer is dependent on which cells have become affected:
- Squamous Cell Carcinoma (70-90% of cervical cancer cases) – the cells affected are the flat, skin-like cells that cover the outer surface of the cervix, known as squamous cells.
- Adenocarcinoma ( ≈ 10% of cervical cancer cases) – making up the majority of alternative cervical cancer types, adenocarcinoma affects the glandular cells in the passage between the cervix and the womb.
- Adenosquamous Carcinoma (a minority of cases) – this rare cervical cancer affects both the squamous and glandular cells of the cervix.
- Small Cell Cancer (very rare aggressive form of cervical cancer) – small cell cancer is the rarest of the four listed here and is more likely to spread quickly to other areas of the body, such as lymph nodes.
What Are The Symptoms?
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding (between periods, after intercourse)
- Increased vaginal discharge, especially with foul smell
- Heavy or long periods
- Painful intercourse
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
Do ALL Cervical Cell Changes Cause Cancer?
Sometimes cells can change but stop growing or acting abnormally, in which case there can be benign (non-cancerous) growths such as fibroids. These growths can also cause pre-cancerous growths, meaning they are acting abnormally but they are not cancerous yet.
What is a Pap Smear?
A Pap smear is a screening procedure involving the collection of a small sample of cells from your cervix.
Your doctor will use a speculum inserted in your vagina and a small brush to collect a sample which is then sent off for testing.
Pap smears may be a little uncomfortable, but with proper technique, they should not be painful.
Why Get a Pap?
Prevention is key in cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer is a slowly developing form of the disease that can take years to become fully-fledged cancer.
For the most common form of cervical cancer – squamous cell carcinoma – the individual starts developing abnormal cells that then become more and more affected.
The levels of cell abnormality are graded by the terms CIN I, II, and III, ASC-US, LSIL and HSIL, before being classified as cancer. These terms may be confusing, but can simply be thought of as technical medical terms which help you and medical professionals understand at what stage of abnormality your cells have become.
It can take your body years to progress through these stages.
Regular pap smears allow for your healthcare provider to track the progression of abnormal cell growth to inform the optimal treatment plan.
How is HPV Related?
Human Papillomavirus is one of the most common viruses that affect the world population, being the most sexually transmitted infection in the United States.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that almost every sexually active adult will get HPV at some point in their lifetime. It can be spread by skin to skin contact, most commonly through sexual activity.
In most cases, HPV is found to be the cause of cervical cells acting abnormally.
How does it become Cervical Cancer?
Not all HPV infections will cause cancer.
In fact, only a few out of the known 100+ strains of HPV can lead to cancer.
Most of the time, with a robust immune system, your body is able to clear these infections without any symptoms!
When we have a weakened immune system however, or when our bodies are invaded by a strong strain of HPV, cell proliferation – the rapid increase in abnormal cervical cells – can occur.
This can lead to cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN), one of the grading systems mentioned before in this article, which over a number of years can lead to more abnormal cells and eventually cancer.