The American Cancer Society states that cervical cancer used to be the leading cause of cancer death for women in the US. But because more women are undergoing screening for the disease, the number of deaths from the condition have decreased significantly over the past 40 years.
However, it is estimated that 12,340 new cases of cervical cancer were diagnosed in the US last year and 4,030 deaths occurred as a result of the disease, suggesting that there is still more that can be done to combat the cancer.
In line with Cervical Health Awareness Month, we highlight the signs and symptoms women need to look out for when it comes to cervical cancer, the importance of screening and what more can be done to increase awareness of the disease.
What is cervical cancer?
The female reproductive system
Cervical cancer is most common in women between the ages of 21 and 50.
Cervical cancer forms in the tissues of the cervix - the organ that connects the uterus and the vagina.
There are two forms of cervical cancer. The first is squamous cell cervical cancer. This is cancer on the outer surface of the ectocervix - the area of the cervix that projects into the vagina.
The other form of cervical cancer is called adenocarcinoma of the cervix. This is cancer of the endocervix - the inner area of the cervix.
According to the American Cancer Society, cervical cancer is most common in women under the age of 50, and it rarely occurs in women under the age of 20.
The risks for cervical cancer
The National Institutes of Health states that almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by certain types of human papilliomavirus (HPV).
There are over 100 types of HPV, and around 40 of these can be sexually transmitted. Of these, approximately 15 are thought to be cancer-causing viruses, with two types - HPV-16 and HPV-18 - being responsible for around 70% of cervical cancer cases globally.
Studies have shown that other risk factors for cervical cancer include a family history of the disease, smoking, a weakened immune system and long-term mental stress.
Research has also shown that taking contraceptive pills can increase a woman's risk of cervical cancer.
Ignoring the signs
In the past, health professionals have referred to cervical cancer as the "silent killer." Spotting cervical cancer in its early stages can prove difficult, as early forms of the disease do not usually present symptoms.
It is not until the cancer becomes invasive that symptoms occur, such as abnormal bleeding after sexual intercourse, during menopause or between periods, heavy or prolonged periods, unusual discharge and/or pain during sex.
Given the absence or subtleness of early symptoms of the disease, it is a concern that some women may not realize they have it, and some may even ignore the signs or confuse them with symptoms of other conditions.
Debbie Saslow, director of breast and cervical cancer at the American Cancer Society, told Medical News Today:
"Bleeding and pain are symptoms that women sometimes do ignore, but women also identified abnormal bleeding as the most likely symptom to be associated with cancer.
There are also a range of reasons that people ignore symptoms - one major explanation is denial. Other reasons can be related to culture. For example, some cultures are very fatalistic and believe that if you have cancer, there is nothing you can do about it so there's no reason to see a doctor."