Description A malignant tumor of the cervix, the lowermost part of the uterus, it occurs when cells change in women’s cervix – which connects the uterus and vagina.
Causes or risk factors are exposure to human papillomavirus (HPV), smoking, low immune system, insufficient healthcare facilities, family history.
Symptoms can include vaginal bleeding, heavy vaginal discharge, pain in the pelvic region, lower back pain, pain in the lower tummy, painful and swollen legs, weight loss, unexplained loss of appetite.
Pap smear or pelvic examination would have to precede treatment which can include surgery, radiation and chemotherapy and is dependent on the ‘stage’ of the cancer.
Surgery may involve removing a part of the cervix if the cancer is small, removing the cervix and upper part of the vagina while the womb is left untouched to enable pregnancy later. In extreme cases the cervix and womb (hysterectomy) which includes the ovaries and fallopian tubes, can be removed. The simple hysterectomy is used when the cancer has not yet spread very much (Stage 0 or stage 1A).
Any form of hysterectomy is a major surgery and can have risks like hemorrhage, blood clots, surgical wound complications, allergic reactions to anaesthesia etc. However it must be noted that radical hysterectomy has high success rates. Potential long-term effects eg bladder and bowel problems, early induced menopause or loss of reproductive organs may be very difficult conditions to come to terms with emotionally for many patients.
In some cases lymph nodes (which are part of the body’s drainage system) may need to be removed. Sometimes the doctor may decide to perform a pelvic lymph node dissection which involves removing of the lymph nodes to determine the presence or absence of cancer cells. If the lymph nodes are seen to be cancerous the oncologist may not go in for radical hysterectomy but elect chemoradiotherapy as the main treatment.
Undetectable areas of cancer outside the cervix are called micrometastases. In such cases external beam radiation therapy may be recommended. Medical procedures include Teletherapy, Brachytherapy, radiation therapy, cervical conization.
Regular Cervical screening (which helps detect any changes in the cells of the cervix before they can become cancerous) and HPV vaccination (in some countries even children are offered the vaccine) are the best ways to protect oneself from cervical cancer. Other preventives that lower risk of getting HPV include the use of condoms, quitting smoking, eating a balanced diet to support one’s immune system.
There are temporary side effects of surgery – that can include pain, nausea, fatigue and anxiety. Urinary tract infection is common. Also, there may be difficulty in urinating or having bowel movement.