January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. What should you know about the condition, its prevalence and risk factors, and how to detect or prevent it?

What is Cervical Cancer?

Once the leading cause of death for American women, cervical cancer rates have dramatically dropped over the past 40 years. But it still remains a risk for everyone born female. Cervical cancer involves tumors in the cervix, the lower part of the uterus. Cervical cancer rarely shows any symptoms in its early stages. More advanced cervical cancer can cause such signs as abnormal vaginal bleeding and unusual discharge. But these are common symptoms that can be caused by many different conditions, and some women never have symptoms at all. This makes it easy to miss, and therefore extremely important to lower your risk and get screened regularly.

Risk Factors

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cervical cancer is almost exclusively caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). This sexually transmitted virus is so common that nearly everyone who is not vaccinated will catch it at some point. Most HPV infections clear on their own, but occasionally the virus can lead to health conditions, including cervical cancer.

Additional risk factors include:

  • Smoking
  • HIV infection
  • Long-term use of birth control pills
  • Multiple sexual partners
  • Giving birth to three or more children

Screening Tools

There are two basic screening tools for cervical cancer: a Pap test and an HPV test. Both involve collecting a few cells and a bit of mucus, which are then sent to a laboratory for testing.

Treatment Options

Most cases of cervical cancer are highly treatable, especially when caught early. If cervical cancer is detected, your doctor will refer you to a specialist. The treatment plan your specialist recommends will depend on the specifics of your cancer, including if/how far it has spread. Treatment options include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. All treatments carry the risk of side effects. Be sure to ask lots of questions, and don’t be afraid to seek a second opinion before deciding.

Lowering Cervical Cancer Risk

One of the best ways to lower your risk is to get vaccinated for HPV, if appropriate for you. Talk to your doctor to determine whether getting the vaccine is right for you.

You can also lower your risk by getting screened for HIV infection, beginning treatment if necessary, and quitting smoking. If you’re on birth control pills, talk to your doctor about whether the benefits outweigh the risks. Limit your number of sexual partners and use barrier methods of contraception.

Get screened for cervical cancer regularly, according to your doctor’s instructions. Early detection of precancerous changes dramatically raises your odds of living a healthy, normal life.