Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer among women. In the U.S. alone, it is estimated there were 11,270 new cases of cervical cancer in 2009 and 4,070 deaths from the disease. The two groups of women with the highest rates of cervical cancer are those from ages 35-39 and those from ages 60-64. Early detection is the key to treatment and survival.
Cervical cancer is a cancer of the cervix, or the organ that connects the uterus to the vagina. It is almost always caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), which up until recently was a little-known virus. It has since become a household name. This is a sexually transmitted virus that affects the mucous membranes in humans. HPV is spread through sexual skin-to-skin contact. Penetration is not necessary to spread the virus. Men and women can be affected by HPV, and there are different strains. HPV that causes genital warts won't necessarily contribute to cervical cancer.
The only way to prevent HPV is to abstain from sexual contact. In recent years, a vaccine has been approved for the prevention of HPV. Early detection of cervical cancer is also essential. This is obtained through a pap test. The incidence of cervical cancer has decreased in developed countries around the world because of an increase in the use of screenings and appropriate follow-up treatment.
The pap test or pap smear is named after Dr. George Papanicolaou who first developed the test. A sample of cervical cells are taken and observed under a microscope.
Woman can have HPV for years and not know it. It stays in the body and can lead to cervical cancer years after infection. There are often no symptoms of HPV or cervical cancer, therefore paps are the single best way to detect it. If there are any symptoms, they may include unexplained bleeding or pain.