PrognoHealth – Corporate Health & Wellness Specialist

Cervical Cancer - Types, Symptoms, Prevention and Treatment

Types of Cervical Cancer

  1. Squamous Cell Carcinoma:
    • Most Common Type: Accounts for about 70-80% of all cervical cancers.
    • Origin: Arises from the squamous cells that cover the outer surface of the cervix.
  2. Adenocarcinoma:
    • Less Common but Increasing: Represents 10-20% of cervical cancers.
    • Origin: Develops from the glandular cells lining the cervical canal.
  3. Mixed Carcinoma:
    • Adenosquamous Carcinoma: Contains both squamous and glandular cells.
    • Rare Types: Other rare forms include small cell carcinoma and clear cell carcinoma.
Risk Factors and Causes

Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Infection

  • Primary Cause: Nearly all cervical cancers are caused by persistent infection with high-risk HPV types, especially HPV-16 and HPV-18.
  • Transmission: HPV is a sexually transmitted infection, common among sexually active individuals.
  • Prevention: Vaccines against HPV can significantly reduce the risk of cervical cancer.

Additional Risk Factors

  1. Sexual Activity:
    • Early onset of sexual activity and multiple sexual partners increase HPV exposure risk.
  2. Smoking:
    • Tobacco use doubles the risk of cervical cancer due to its harmful effect on the immune system and cervical cells.
  3. Weakened Immune System:
    • HIV/AIDS or immunosuppressive drugs can reduce the body’s ability to fight HPV infections.
  4. Long-term Use of Oral Contraceptives:
    • Extended use of birth control pills is associated with a higher risk of cervical cancer.
  5. Socioeconomic Status:
    • Limited access to healthcare and screening services can delay diagnosis and treatment.
Symptoms of Cervical Cancer

Early-stage cervical cancer often has no symptoms. When symptoms do appear, they may include:

  1. Abnormal Vaginal Bleeding:
    • Post-coital bleeding, intermenstrual bleeding, or postmenopausal bleeding.
  2. Unusual Vaginal Discharge:
    • Watery, bloody, or foul-smelling discharge.
  3. Pelvic Pain:
    • Pain during intercourse or pelvic discomfort.
  4. Advanced Symptoms:
    • In later stages, symptoms may include difficulty urinating, kidney failure, or swollen legs due to the spread of cancer.
Diagnosis of Cervical Cancer

Screening Methods

  1. Pap Smear (Pap Test):
    • Detection: Identifies precancerous and cancerous cells on the cervix.
    • Frequency: Recommended every 3 years for women aged 21-65.
  2. HPV Testing:
    • HPV DNA Test: Detects high-risk HPV types that can cause cervical cancer.
    • Co-testing: Often combined with the Pap test for women aged 30-65, recommended every 5 years.
  3. Visual Inspection with Acetic Acid (VIA):
    • Accessibility: A cost-effective method used in low-resource settings.
    • Procedure: The cervix is inspected visually after applying acetic acid.

Diagnostic Procedures

  1. Colposcopy:
    • Detailed Examination: Uses a colposcope to closely examine the cervix for abnormalities following an abnormal Pap test or HPV test.
  2. Biopsy:
    • Histological Examination: Samples of cervical tissue are taken for microscopic analysis to confirm the presence of cancer cells.
  3. Imaging Tests:

Extent Assessment: MRI, CT scans, and PET scans are used to determine the stage of cancer and check for spread to other organs.

Staging of Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer is staged using the FIGO (International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics) system, which ranges from Stage I (localised) to Stage IV (advanced spread).

  • Stage I: Cancer is confined to the cervix.
  • Stage II: Cancer has spread beyond the cervix but not to the pelvic wall or lower third of the vagina.
  • Stage III: Cancer has spread to the pelvic wall, lower third of the vagina, or causes kidney problems.
  • Stage IV: Cancer has spread to other parts of the body (e.g., bladder, rectum, distant organs).
Treatment of Cervical Cancer

Treatment depends on the stage of the cancer, the patient’s overall health, and her preferences. Common treatments include:

  1. Surgery:
    • Early-Stage:
      • Conization: Removal of a cone-shaped section of abnormal tissue.
      • Hysterectomy: Removal of the uterus, and possibly the cervix (simple or radical hysterectomy).
      • Fertility-Sparing: Radical trachelectomy preserves the uterus in younger women with early-stage disease.
  1. Radiation Therapy:
    • External Beam Radiation Therapy (EBRT): Targets cancer cells with high-energy rays from outside the body.
    • Brachytherapy: Places radioactive material directly into or near the tumor.
  2. Chemotherapy:
    • Combined with Radiation: Often used concurrently (chemoradiation) for locally advanced cancers.
    • Advanced Disease: May be used to treat metastatic or recurrent cervical cancer.
  3. Targeted Therapy and Immunotherapy:
    • Bevacizumab (Avastin): An anti-angiogenic drug used with chemotherapy to inhibit tumor blood vessel growth.
    • Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors: Drugs like pembrolizumab (Keytruda) that help the immune system attack cancer cells are being explored for advanced stages.
Innovations in Diagnosis and Treatment

Recent advancements are making cervical cancer care more effective and accessible, particularly in resource-constrained settings like India.

  1. HPV Vaccination:
    • Widespread Implementation: Efforts are underway to include HPV vaccines in national immunisation programs.
    • New Vaccines: Development of vaccines covering more HPV strains and therapeutic vaccines for treating existing HPV infections.
  2. Enhanced Screening Techniques:
    • Self-Sampling HPV Tests: Allow women to collect samples at home, increasing accessibility and screening uptake.
    • AI-Powered Diagnostics: Artificial intelligence tools are being developed to improve the accuracy of Pap and HPV test interpretations.
  3. Minimally Invasive and Robotic Surgery:
    • Advanced Techniques: Laparoscopic and robotic surgeries offer precision with less recovery time, beneficial for early-stage cancer.
  4. Advanced Radiotherapy:
    • IMRT and Proton Therapy: Provide targeted radiation with minimal damage to surrounding tissues, improving outcomes and reducing side effects.
  5. Precision Medicine:
    • Genomic Profiling: Tailoring treatments based on the genetic profile of the tumor, leading to personalised and more effective treatment strategies.
Prevention of Cervical Cancer
  1. HPV Vaccination:
    • Primary Prevention: Administering the HPV vaccine to preteens (both boys and girls) to protect against the most common cancer-causing HPV types.
  2. Regular Screening:
    • Early Detection: Regular Pap smears and HPV testing can detect precancerous changes before they develop into cancer.
    • Adherence to Guidelines: Following screening guidelines can significantly reduce cervical cancer incidence and mortality.
  3. Healthy Lifestyle:
    • Smoking Cessation: Reduces the risk of cervical and other cancers.
    • Safe Sexual Practices: Limiting the number of sexual partners and using condoms can lower HPV transmission risk.

Cervical cancer is a largely preventable and treatable disease with effective screening, vaccination, and treatment strategies. In India, addressing the barriers to access and increasing awareness are critical to reducing the burden of this disease. Continuous innovations in diagnostics and treatment, along with robust public health measures, hold the promise of significantly decreasing cervical cancer incidence and mortality.

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