Facts About Cervical Cancer
in New Mexico
- What is cervical cancer?
- Facts about cervical cancer in New Mexico
- Who is at risk of developing cervical cancer?
- What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?
- How can I reduce my risk for cervical cancer?
- What is cancer screening?
- What should I know about screening for cervical cancer?
The cervix is the lower, narrow end of the uterus. The cervix connects the vagina (birth canal) to the upper part of the uterus. The uterus (or womb) is where a baby grows when a woman is pregnant. The cervix functions as a passageway to the uterus and, during pregnancy, the cervix is tightly closed to help keep the baby inside the uterus. The cervix also makes mucus which help sperm move from the vagina through the cervix into the uterus.
Cervical cancer begins when normal cells of the cervix undergo changes leading to abnormal growth. The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the main cause of cervical cancer. HPV is a common virus that is passed from one person to another during sex. At least half of sexually active people will have HPV at some point in their lives, but few women will get cervical cancer.
- Approximately 90 women in New Mexico are diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer each year.
- About 30 New Mexican women die from the disease each year.
- Almost two thirds of the women newly diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer are under age 55, but approximately two out of every three cervical cancer deaths occur among women ages 55 and older.
- About 92% of women who are diagnosed early through Pap test survive five years or more.
All women are at risk for cervical cancer. It occurs most often in women over age 30. Research has shown that people with certain risk factors are more likely than others to develop cervical cancer. A risk factor is something that may increase the chance of developing a disease.
The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the main cause of cervical cancer. HPV is a common virus that is passed from one person to another during sex. There are many types of HPV. Some HPV types can cause changes on a woman’s cervix that can lead to cervical cancer over time, while other types can cause genital warts. HPV is so common that most people get it at some time in their lives. HPV usually causes no symptoms so you can’t tell that you have it. For most women, HPV will go away on its own; however, if it does not, there is a chance that over time it may cause cervical cancer.
In addition to HPV, other things can increase your risk of cervical cancer. They include:
- Smoking. Among women who are infected with HPV, smoking cigarettes slightly increases the risk of cervical cancer.
- Lack of regular Pap tests. Regular Pap tests help doctors find abnormal cells. Removing or killing the abnormal cells usually prevents cervical cancer.
- Weakened immune system. Having HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) or another condition that makes it hard for your body to fight off health problems.
- Sexual history. Women who have had many sexual partners have a higher risk of developing cervical cancer. Also, a woman who has had sex with a man who has many sexual partners may be at higher risk of developing cervical cancer. In both cases, the risk of developing cervical cancer is higher because these women have a higher risk of HPV infection.
- Using birth control pills for a long time (five or more years). Using birth control pills for a long time may slightly increase the risk of cervical cancer among women with HPV infection. However, the risk decreases quickly when women stop using birth control pills.
- Having given birth to three or more children. Studies suggest that giving birth to many children (three or more) may slightly increase the risk of cervical cancer among women with HPV infection.
- DES (diethylstilbestrol) exposure: DES may increase the risk of a rare form of cervical cancer in daughters exposed to this drug before birth. DES was given to some pregnant women in the United States between about 1940 and 1971. (It is no longer given to pregnant women.)
Having an HPV infection or other risk factors does not mean that a woman will develop cervical cancer. Most women who have risk factors for cervical cancer never develop it.
Early on, cervical cancer may not cause signs and symptoms. Advanced cervical cancer may cause:
- Bleeding or discharge from the vagina that is not normal for you. This can be bleeding after sex, bleeding that occurs between regular menstrual periods, menstrual periods that last longer and are heavier than before and bleeding after going through menopause.
- Increased vaginal discharge.
- Pelvic pain.
- Pain during sex.
- Infections or other health problems may also cause these symptoms. Only a doctor can tell for sure. A woman with any of these symptoms should tell her doctor so that problems can be diagnosed and treated as early as possible.
- Have regular Pap tests and follow-up starting at age 21. The Pap test (or Pap smear) looks for precancers, cell changes on the cervix that may become cervical cancer if they are not treated appropriately. The Pap test is recommended for all women and can be done in a doctor’s office or clinic.
- If your Pap test results are normal, your chance of getting cervical cancer in the next few years is very low. For that reason, your doctor may tell you that you will not need another Pap test for as long as three years.
- If you are 30 years old or older, you may choose to have an HPV test along with the Pap test. If both test results are normal, your doctor may tell you that you can wait five years to have your next Pap test. But you should still go to the doctor regularly for a checkup.
- For women aged 21 to 65, it is important to continue getting a Pap test as directed by your doctor - even if you think you are too old to have a child or are not having sex anymore. However, if you are older than 65 and have had normal Pap test results for several years, or if you have had your cervix removed as part of a total hysterectomy for non-cancerous conditions, like fibroids, your doctor may tell you that you do not need to have a Pap test anymore.
- Avoid multiple sexual partners.
- Delay first sexual experience until older age.
- Not smoking.
- Useing a condom during sexual intercourse may provide some protection from infection.
Screening is when a test is used to look for a disease before there are any symptoms. Cancer screening tests are effective when they can detect disease early. For some cancers, detecting disease early can lead to more effective treatment and better outcomes. In other cases, the risks associated with screening and treatment may be greater than the benefits.
The Comprehensive Cancer Program promotes screening recommendations made by the CDC and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF). The USPSTF found that the benefits of screening for cervical cancer may be outweighed by the potential harm caused. If you are concerned about cervical cancer, talk with your doctor.
The Pap test (or Pap smear) looks for precancers, cell changes on the cervix that may become cervical cancer if they are not treated appropriately. The Pap test is recommended for all women, and can be done in a doctor’s office or clinic. During the Pap test, the doctor will use a plastic or metal instrument, called a speculum, to widen your vagina. This helps the doctor examine the vagina and the cervix, and collect a few cells and mucus from the cervix and the area around it. The cells are then placed on a slide or in a bottle of liquid and sent to a laboratory. The laboratory will check to be sure that the cells are normal.
When you have a Pap test the doctor may also perform a pelvic exam, checking your uterus, ovaries and other organs to make sure there are no problems. There are times when your doctor may perform a pelvic exam without giving you a Pap test. Ask your doctor which tests you are having, if you are unsure.
If you have a low income, do not have health insurance or cannot afford your health insurance co-payment, you may be able to get a free or low-cost Pap test through the New Mexico Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection (BCC) Program. To find out if you qualify, call 1-877-852-2585 (se habla español).
- American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts & Figures 2012. Atlanta: American Cancer Society, 2012
- Division of Cancer Prevention and Control, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. (2010, September 2). Cervical Cancer. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/cervical/
- National Cancer Institute. (2008, November 20). What you need to know about cervical cancer.