Cervical cancer affects the cervix, which is a part of the female reproductive system. The cervix is the lowest portion of a women's uterus (womb) and is located at the top of the vagina. The cervix is made up of cells which can change from being healthy to abnormal.
Cancer refers to a class of diseases in which abnormal cells grow without control. The term tumour or neoplasm refers to an abnormal growth of cells. Tumours can either be noncancerous (benign) or cancerous (malignant). A benign tumour does not spread to surrounding tissues or organs and usually does not come back after it has been removed. On the other hand, a malignant tumour can spread (e.g., from the cervix) and invade other tissues or organs in the body.
Cervical cancer is the third most common type of gynecological cancer in North America. The incidence of cervical cancer has declined dramatically since the 1950s. The Pap test screening (also known as Pap smear) was the major contributing factor to this decline. The Pap test detects cell changes in the cervix.
As discussed above, some of these changes are noncancerous, but some cells may become precancerous. If precancerous cells are not found and are left untreated, they can progress to more invasive cancer of the cervix. Therefore, regular Pap test screening allows for early detection of precancerous cells and for initiation of treatment before these calls become cancerous.
Each year, it is estimated that 1,300 new cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed in Canada. Among these cases, 390 women will not survive their cancer. The lifetime probability of a Canadian woman developing cervical cancer is estimated to be 1 in 148. Fortunately, almost all cervical cancer can be cured when diagnosed and treated at an early stage. The cure rate for stage 1 cervical cancer (cancer limited to the cervix) is 80% to 90%.
Since some types of human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause cancer of the cervix, HPV vaccination has been made available in Canada since 2006. It is recommended that females between the ages of 9 and 45 receive the HPV vaccine to protect them from strains of the HPV virus responsible for approximately 70% of cervical cancers.
Although males cannot get cervical cancer, vaccinating boys and young men against HPV is still beneficial. It helps prevent the spread of HPV and also helps reduce their risk of anal cancer and genital warts, which are also caused by HPV. One of the HPV vaccines in Canada can be given to boys and young men aged 9 to 26.
For the most part, cervical cancer can be prevented and cured when detected in the early stages.