January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, which serves as a reminder of how vital regular screenings and tests for cervical health are. But what happens if you get a cancer diagnosis? Your doctor (or team of doctors) will be able to give you comprehensive information on the treatment and management options available to you. Each patient is different, but the following general information on cervical cancer can give you an idea of what to expect.
If a biopsy results in a cervical cancer diagnosis, your doctor may refer you for imaging studies to assess if and where the cancer has spread. This evaluation will help inform the treatment plan.
- Pelvic or abdominal ultrasound: Ultrasound uses sound waves to create images of the body. Abdominal and/or pelvic ultrasound can be used in the evaluation of cervical cancer by allowing physicians to examine the cervix. A pelvic ultrasound is either performed transabdominally by placing the probe on the abdomen or transvaginally by placing a probe into the vagina.
- MRI scans: Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans use powerful magnets to produce detailed images of the soft tissues in the body. A pelvic MRI produces detailed images of the uterus, ovaries, and nearby organs. Intravenous contrast is often used to highlight abnormalities.
- CT scans: Computed tomography (CT) scans can be used for larger tumors and to determine if the cancer has spread beyond the cervix.
- PET scans: PET scans use glucose containing a radioactive atom to help doctors see if cervical cancer has spread to the lymph nodes. A special camera can detect where the radioactive glucose has been absorbed by cancer cells.
The treatment options for cervical cancer are highly dependent on the stage of the disease. Other factors that influence treatment options include the exact location of the cancerous tissue within the cervix and which type of cancer is present (squamous cell or adenocarcinoma) The most common treatments include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy.
- Surgery: Surgical options for treating cancer of the cervix vary depending on the areas affected, as well as whether or not the woman wishes to maintain her fertility.
- Nonsurgical Treatments: If surgery is not an option or cancer spreads to the lymph nodes or surrounding tissues, treatments such as radiation therapy or chemotherapy are prescribed.
Monitoring Cervical Cancer
After diagnosis and treatment, the patient should receive comprehensive follow-up care to monitor their condition. While regular Pap and HPV tests are recommended, imaging tests are also employed. Imaging tests may include ultrasounds, MRIs, or CT scans of the pelvis, abdomen, or both. The frequency of follow-up testing and monitoring depends on the type, stage, and location of the cancerous tissue. The kind of treatment you received also plays a part in determining how often you see the doctor for follow-up tests.
If follow-up tests show signs of cancer returning or growing, your care team will counsel you on how to proceed with further treatment.
According to the American Cancer Society, when cancer of the cervix is detected during an early stage, the 5-year survival rate for all women is about 92%. The prognosis changes based on the stage of cancer, and factors like age, race, and ethnicity affect survival rates. Overall, 5-year survival rates have decreased by over 50% since the 1970s, due in large part to routine screenings detecting cervical changes before cancer is present. That’s why getting regular screenings done and getting any recommended follow-up imaging tests.
Cervical cancer is often preventable. Here are steps you can take to reduce your chances of getting it:
- Get the HPV vaccine: Vaccines are available to protect against the types of HPV related to cervical cancer. It is best to get the vaccine as a child, starting at age 11 or so. However, older adolescents and adults can also get the vaccine, they just need an additional dose. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guide to the HPV vaccine has more information on when it should be given.
- Limit exposure to HPV: HPV is passed from person to person during skin-to-skin contact. Any skin-to-skin contact with an infected part of the body can spread the virus, it doesn’t have to occur during sex. Because it is so common, it is difficult to avoid exposure. However, you can try to limit your exposure to HPV by practicing safer sex with condoms and limiting the number of partners you have.
- Stop smoking: Women who smoke and also have HPV have a higher risk of developing cervical cancer than nonsmokers. Even if you haven’t been diagnosed with HPV, quitting smoking can reduce your risks of a large number of diseases.
- Get regular screenings: Regular cervical cancer screening can detect changes in cervical cells. It may not prevent cancer, but rather catch it early enough to more easily treat it.
Most insurance plans cover annual well-woman visits and cervical cancer screening. Check the American Cancer Society Guidelines for the Prevention and Early Detection of Cervical Cancer and speak to your doctor about when you should be screened.
You can contact Heartland Health Services at 309.680.7600 or www.hhsil.com to schedule an appointment.