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Cervical cancer is the rapid, uncontrolled growth of severely abnormal cells on the cervix, the lower part of the uterus that opens into the vagina. Fortunately, when detected at an early stage, cervical cancer is highly curable. Pap test screening, when done regularly, is the single most important tool for preventing cervical cancer because it can detect abnormal cervical cell changes before they become cancerous, when treatment is most effective.{{more}}

The cervix is made up of two kinds of cells: columnar cells and squamous cells. Columnar cells constantly change into squamous cells in an area of the cervix called the transformation zone. As a result of this natural process of change, some cervical cells can become abnormal. Infection can also cause abnormal cervical cell changes. When abnormal cell changes persist over time (years) and become severe, these cells may develop into cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer is caused by severe abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix. Most precancerous or cancerous cell changes occur in the cervix at the transformation zone because these cells normally undergo constant change. During this natural process of change, some cervical cells can become abnormal, especially if you are infected with high-risk types of Human Papillomavirus (HPV).

Other factors that may play a role causing cervical cancer include:

• Smoking or a history of smoking.

• Having an impaired immune system, such as from having human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

• Using birth control pills for more than five years. This may be related to infection with HPV. Since abnormal cervical cell changes rarely cause symptoms, it is important for you to have regular Pap test screening. If untreated cervical cell changes progress to cervical cancer, and symptoms may develop. Symptoms of cervical cancer may include:

• Abnormal vaginal bleeding or a significant unexplained change in your menstrual cycle.

• Bleeding when something comes in contact with your cervix, such as during sexual intercourse or the insertion of a diaphragm.

• Pain during sexual intercourse.

• Abnormal vaginal discharge containing mucus that may be tinged with blood.

Abnormal cervical cell changes are often the result of high-risk sexual behaviours years earlier. These behaviours include having unprotected sex (not using condoms), having multiple sex partners, or having a partner who has had multiple partners. These behaviours increase your risk of infections and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). The most common cause of cervical cancer is infection with a high-risk type of HPV. A past HPV infection in you or your partner can cause abnormal cervical cell changes later since the virus may remain in the body for life. Low-risk types of HPV cause genital warts, but other types may not cause any symptoms so you may not know you have had it.

Smoking (or a history of smoking) or having an impaired immune system may also increase your risk for cervical cell changes. The use of birth control pills for more than five years may be a risk factor related to infection with HPV.

Cervical cancer in its stages can be cured with treatment and close follow-up. Your treatment choices depend on:

• The stage of your cancer.

• Your age and your desire to be able to have children. If the cancer is discovered very early, a cone biopsy may be a treatment choice that may not affect your ability to have children.

• Submitted by the Cancer Society of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.