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Cervical cancer was once the leading cause of cancer deaths for women in the United States. Now, thanks to the development of early screening techniques, that’s no longer the case. Yet every year, there are still around 13,800 new cases of cervical cancer. To learn more about cervical cancer prevention, diagnosis, and treatment, we spoke with Kate Harris, MD, a gynecologic oncologist.
What are the signs and symptoms of cervical cancer?
Many patients do not experience symptoms in the early stages of cervical cancer, which is why routine screening is important. When symptoms do develop, they may include the following:
- Vaginal bleeding, including bleeding after sexual intercourse
- Unusual vaginal discharge
- Pelvic pain
- Painful sexual intercourse
Many other health problems can also cause these symptoms. If you are experiencing any of these signs, see your doctor as soon as possible.
How can cervical cancer be prevented?
The human papillomavirus (HPV) causes the vast majority of cervical cancer. More than 80% of the population is exposed to HPV sometime in their lifetime. The HPV vaccine is the only vaccine that prevents cancer. It is currently recommended for boys and girls from age 11-12, can be given as early as 9, and can be given up to age 45. It is most effective if given prior to exposure to the HPV virus.
Pap smears are another method of prevention. Pap smears check for pre-cervical cancer cells, which can then be treated prior to the development of cervical cancer. With the HPV vaccine and routine pap smears, cervical cancer can be prevented.
Other ways to help lower your risk of cervical cancer include not smoking, limiting the number of sexual partners you have, and using condoms to protect against HPV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
What are my treatment options for cervical cancer?
Treatment options depend on how much the cancer has spread and, in some cases, the desire for future fertility. Treatment options may include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.
Will the treatment put me into menopause early?
This depends on if the doctor recommends removal of the ovaries. If the ovaries are removed or undergo radiation, early menopause will occur.
Will I need hormone replacement therapy after treatment? If so, is it safe?
Your need for hormone replacement therapy will depend on what your doctor recommends. Hormone therapy is a safe option for the most common type of cervical cancer.
Can you get pregnant after having cervical cancer?
For early stage cervical cancer, there are surgical options that will allow for future pregnancy. In more advanced cervical cancer, patients can be referred to the infertility clinic for a discussion about options for fertility preservation.
Learn more about cervical cancer.