The cervix is the neck of the uterus. It projects into the upper part of the vagina and can be felt with the fingertips, especially in a squatting position. With the aid of a speculum, a mirror, and a flashlight, you can see your cervix, too.
During labor, the cervix dilates, allowing the baby to leave the womb, enter the vagina, and be born. The cervix also opens, just a little, to help push menstrual blood out of the uterus, and to allow sperm inside so fertilization can occur.
Medical opinion holds that the cervix is “insensitive to pain,” a statement that I challenge.
The cervix is covered by a thin layer of cells, called the epithelium. And the epithelium has two kinds of cells: ones that grow in columns, and ones that are flat and scaly. The columnar ones make up the inner surface of the cervix and are red, like our lips. The flat ones (squamous cells) make up the outer surface and are pink, like some skins. The place where they meet is the squamo-columnar junction, or transition zone, one of the most common sites of cervical cancer.
In the biological make up of human species, the reproductive system is one major factor that differentiates men from women. The women’s reproductive system (including cervix) is the harbor of human life. The womb, specifically, is where a potential human life is nestled. The women’s unique body serves as the breeding ground for the next generations of human race. Thus, the well-being of a woman’s reproductive system is crucial not only for women themselves, but for the human race as a whole. Aside from instances of inability to conceive a child, diseases like cancer of the uterus and cancer of the cervix are major threats to women’s overall health care condition.
The cervix is an important part of women’s reproductive system. It is the bridge that connects the vagina to the uterus. Its primary role is being the passageway of the blood coming from the uterus and going out of the vagina (menstruation). Also, the cervix is responsible for the production of mucus that aids the travel of sperm cells from vagina to the uterus. But most importantly, the cervix keeps the fetus inside the womb as the cervical canal closes during pregnancy.
Cancer of the cervix happens when a tumor grows in it. Tumor is a mass of tissues. It is the amalgamation of the unnecessary cells produced in the cervix. Tumor in the cervix can either be benign or malignant. A benign tumor is one that are not cancerous. Benign tumors are not life threatening and can be removed easily without the probability of growing back again. Examples of benign growths that can happen in the cervix are polyps, cysts, and genital warts. Malignant tumor, on the other hand, is the kind that is considered a cancer. Malignant tumors are a great threat to life and can grow back after removal. Malignant tumor is characterized by cells that can travel and spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body. When these cancer cells invade other body parts, they form new tumor and pose equally great harm as that of their threat to the cervix.
It still remains unexplainable why some women develop cancer of the cervix while others do not. Cervical cancer’s main cause still remains a missing piece of the puzzle. What are known by medical experts are things or elements that can increase the probability of women developing this kind of cancer–risk factors. Prolonged use of birth control pills, several childbirths, and cigarette smoking are the most prevalent risk factors. Having multiple sex partners and having a partner who had many sexual partners are also high risk factors. A deteriorated immune system is another very high risk factor for developing cancer of the cervix. Infections from human papillomaviruses and infection of sexually transmitted diseases or HIV are the most prevalent factors that can deteriorate the immune system and increase the chances of having a cancer of the cervix.
Women suspected to have cancer of the cervix show symptoms like painful sexual intercourse, abnormal bleeding of the vagina, and painful pelvic area. Symptoms that are more indicative of a potential cervical cancer are experienced in between normal menstrual period bleeding, douching or post-intercourse bleeding, and post-menopause bleeding. An early diagnosis is the best way to identify whether the existence of any of these symptoms is already at a cancer stage or not. Colposcopy and biopsy are the modes of diagnosis for suspected cervical cancer cases.
The staging of cervical cancer proves to be a very complex matter. Five stages (stage 0, stage 1, stage 2, stage 3, and stage 4) are identified levels of cervical cancer. The appropriate treatment for a particular patients depends on what stage the case falls into. The treatment options being administered to most cases are surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, radiation therapy and chemotherapy, or a combination of all these three methods. In surgery, total hysterectomy (cervix and the uterus removal) is done. Radical hysterectomy (removal of uterus, cervix, and other parts of the vagina) is administered to women with grave cases. Lymph nodes around the area of the tumor may also be removed to prevent the spread of cancer cells. In chemotherapy, cancer-killing drugs are entered into the bloodstream for faster treatment and prevention of further spread. Radiation therapy is the use of high-energy rays to hinder the growth of cancer cells. It can be internally (insertion of small radioactive implants) or externally (use of machines outside the body) applied.
A healthy, fertile, cervix looks pink, with a pretty round, red mouth, the os. (Before puberty, the entire cervix is red as pink squamous cells have yet to cover it.)
A cervix that is infected, irritated, or growing abnormally usually looks lumpy, bumpy, very red, and weepy. (A vinegar wash is needed to make the white lesions of HPV visible.)
A variety of organisms, including parasites, bacteria, and viruses, as well as wear and tear from childbirth and intercourse can affect the health of the cervix.
The major categories of cervical distress are – going from least to worst – cervicitis, erosion, dysplasia, HPV infections, and cancer.
- 1 Cervix infection
- 2 Risk factors of cervical cancer
Cervicitis: Inflammation of the Cervix
Acute cervicitis is inflammation – reddening, swelling, and sometimes bleeding – of the cervix. Cervicitis can follow a difficult birth, vacuum aspiration, or trauma. It can be triggered by use of hormones such as birth control pills and menopausal hormone pills, or by irritation from the string of an IUD. But, usually, cervicitis is caused by a bacterial, viral, or fungal infection such as Trichomonas vaginalis, Candida albicans, or Haemophilus vaginalis. Cervicitis can be symptomless, or it can cause pain on intercourse, itching and burning of the genitals, and/or discharge. Specific treatment with drugs or herbs to eliminate the infective organisms is usually effective.
If redness and irritation continue in the absence of infection, daily application of aloe vera gel, honey, or vitamin E oil, directly on the cervix for 2-3 weeks is generally effective.
Chronic cervicitis occurs when inflammation and infection of the cervix continues unchecked for many years. The cervix thickens, cysts protrude, tears and scars from childbirth and gynecological procedures accumulate, and, depending on the infection, noxious-smelling discharges, sometimes with pelvic pain, may come and go. Orthodox medicine uses antibiotics and surgery to clear the inflamed tissue, rather like using a backhoe to clear the ground; feminist doctors consider this over-treatment. Alternative approaches, like a careful gardener, work to remove infections, reverse precancerous changes, and increase the health of the woman and her cervix with as little disruption as possible. If the condition worsens or fails to respond to treatment within 3-12 months, surgical remedies are indicated.
Not the same thing, but frequently confused, even by doctors. When columnar cells grow too quickly, they push aside the squamous cells, causing eversion and erosion. In an eversion, there is generally a clear dividing line between the cells. In an erosion, there is no definite border.
Cervical eversions show a clear dividing line between the two types of cells, though the columnar cells are spilling out of the os, instead of confining themselves to the inside of the cervix. Cervical eversions revert to normal when the hormones triggering them – such as birth control pills – are removed. Some women have a “congenital” eversion which is present at birth, regresses until puberty, may be especially prominent if she is pregnant, and regresses after menopause. Eversion generally requires no treatment; if confused with erosion, over-treatment is likely.
Surgical procedures – such as endometrial biopsy, D&C, aspiration extraction of the contents of the womb, radiation implantation, cone biopsy, cryosurgery, and laser ablation – as well as trauma from childbirth and intercourse, can, in the presence of inflammation and infection, lead to cervicitis or erosion.
Cervical erosion is a term that is often applied to any redness seen on the cervix, from an abrasion to a full-blown infection. “[It] conjures up a frightening picture of the cervix wasting away like bare earth after a heavy rain, [and] is not only erroneous, but absurd.”(1) Conservative doctors may suggest removal of the “eroded” tissue. Alternative methods are quite successful in healing cervical erosion; complementary medicines can ease side-effects and hasten healing if drugs or surgery are chosen.
Abnormal Cells in the Cervix
Dysplasias often regress with no treatment. Over-treatment in both orthodox and alternative circles is common.
This silent infection rarely causes symptoms and usually is dealt with by the immune system. A few of the sixty known varieties can cause cervical cancer. Poor women are more likely to be diagnosed with cervical cancer and more likely to die of it and more likely to be helped by mandated vaccination programs against it. Unfortunately, the vaccine is only useful before a woman has had any contact, sexual or otherwise, with HPV.
When abnormal cell growth triggered by HPV is unchecked by the immune system, it can invade adjoining tissues and even spread through the blood to distant sites. Untreated, cervical cancer is lethal. Caught early, virtually all cases are cured.
Cervical cancer is voraciously eating women of reproductive age. The third most common kind of cancer claims almost half a million women worldwide. This disease is more prevalent in developing countries and accounts for 80% of global mortality across the world.
Out of a group of human papilloma viruses (HPV), a few varieties have been categorized under high risk- human papilloma viruses (HPV). These varieties have been proved to be the causative agents of cervical cancer. This malignant neoplasm (tumor) starts at the cervix and opens at the top of the vagina.
Common symptoms associated with this disease are abnormal bleeding from the vagina, pelvic pain and back pain. Precancerous stage or the early stage of this disease is usually asymptomatic. This disease takes time to intensify into cancerous condition.
Risk factors of cervical cancer
A number of risk factors have been associated with this disease out of which few factors can be controlled by us. A list of such factors is as follows-
- It has been proved that both active and passive smoking increase the risk of cervical cancer. The carcinogenic byproducts of tobacco have been found in the cervical mucus of the actively smoking women. These substances can damage the DNA of the cervical cells. Keeping the ill effects of smoking in view it is suggested to stop it.
- Use of oral contraceptives for more than five years is related with increase in the risk of cervical cancer. The mechanism of action of contraceptives is not clear but it is hypothesized that hormone-related mechanisms promotes the integration of HPV DNA into the host genome. This in turn promotes the transition from premalignant to malignant state. As an alternative to contraceptives it is advisable to use condoms.
- Sex at a very early age and a higher rate of full term pregnancies is closely associated with this disease. A higher rate of pregnancy maintains the transformation zone on the exocervix for many years. This in turn facilitates the direct exposure to HPV and other cofactors. Sex education to adolescent girls will be helpful to eradicate this problem.
Weakened Immune System
- Food rich in vital nutrients boosts up our immune system. Vegetables and fruits are rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants which help us to fight against many diseases including cervical cancer.
- A woman having multiple sexual partners or whose sexual partner participates in high risk sexual activities can easily succumb to this disease. Sex education can be a solution to this problem also.
Detection/preventive measures of cervical cancer
Use of vaccination and Pap smears (Papanicolaou test)
- Vaccinations – Scientists across the world are struggling hard to synthesize a vaccine which can fight this deadly disease. They have achieved success to some extent as the vaccines are capable of fighting against only few strains of HPV. Moreover the identification of target group for administration of vaccine involves some ethical issues. Very young pre-pubertal girls who had no previous sexual exposure are the right target for vaccination. Hence vaccination does not assure a complete eradication of cervical cancer.
- Pap smears – Cells scrapped from the tip of the cervix are observed under microscope to detect the cancerous or precancerous condition of the cervix. It is advisable to have this test done after the age of 21 at every 2 years of intervals. This test detects the disease in very initial stage making its cure easier. Awareness about this test and making it available at a cheaper price is a favorable step towards control of cervical cancer in developing countries.
- Hygiene – Apart from these preventive measures steps to control risk factors and general maintenance of health and hygiene is also recommended to control this disease.
Vaccines are being promoted by the doctors and pharmaceutical companies. But many facts are not being communicated to the common man. Vaccine alone is like a half equipped, single man army fighting against a deadly disease like cervical cancer. Awareness about all the angles of this disease is very essential as getting Pap smears done and leading a healthy sexual life are also equally essential.
Cancers are a bit different to each other’s but the fears and worries patients have is similar. The best option to reduce stress and focus on proper treatment of cancer is to know more about it.
Find below cancer guides so that you are made aware of important aspects of it.