PAP Smears and Cervical Cancer
Before the PAP smear was developed in the 1930s, cervical cancer was the leading cause of cancer deaths for American women. When the PAP smear became available, deaths declined dramatically, because PAP detects cervical cancer in the early, curable stages. By 1996, cervical cancer was only the 11th leading cause of cancer deaths. In developing countries, where PAP smear is not available, cervical cancer continues to be a major public health problem.
What is Cervical Cancer?
Cervical cancer occurs when the cells in the neck of the female uterus (cervix) become malignant, which means they develop the potential to invade into other organs. Most cervical cancers are caused by human papilloma virus. This virus can also cause genital warts, although different strains of the virus are involved. Human papilloma virus is transmitted from one person another by sexual contact, meaning that a woman’s risk for cervical cancer increases if she has a greater number of sexual partners. Abstaining from sex or using condoms can prevent human papilloma virus transmission, thereby lessening the risk for cervical cancer. Vaccines to prevent human papilloma virus infection are under investigation. Such vaccines, if they’re successful, could greatly reduce the incidence of cervical cancer.
A woman with early cervical cancer usually has no symptoms, but if it becomes more advanced, vaginal bleeding or pelvic pain can develop. Other problems such as kidney failure or blood clots can occur.
Detecting Cervical Cancer Early
If detected early, cervical cancer is completely curable. PAP smear will detect early cervical cancer, which typically comes without symptoms. PAP smear should be part of a woman’s regular gynecological care. PAP smear is done using a speculum examination to swab the cervix and remove some cells. If the cells are abnormal under a microscope, a colposcopic examination is done to better visualize the cervix and take biopsies. If a biopsy is positive for cervical cancer, further treatment is necessary.
Some early cervical cancers are cured with minor surgery alone, without compromising a woman’s ability to bear children. More advanced cervical cancers require combinations of hysterectomy, radiation, and chemotherapy. Although some women are cured of more advanced cervical cancers, the treatments are more aggressive, and fertility can be lost.
PAP smears save lives, and should be part of a woman’s regular gynecological care. Cervical cancer is yet another cancer that can be cured if it is detected in it’s early stages.