6 Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Cervical Cancer

Susan Moore, MD, MPH, of UNC REX Cancer Center and REX Hematology Oncology Associates is board-certified in oncology, hematology and internal medicine. Dr. Moore graduated from The UNC School of Medicine in Chapel Hill, NC. She completed her Internal Medicine internship and residency at the University of California San Francisco in San Francisco, CA. She then attended Emory University in Atlanta, GA,  for her  fellowship in Hematology and Oncology.

Woman discussing health with her Doctor
Discuss with your Care Provider your relative risks screening and treatment options for Cervical Cancer.

1. Why do women develop cervical cancer?
The primary risk factor for cervical cancer is infection with human papilloma virus (HPV), an infection which causes papillomas (more commonly known as warts). HPV is a common virus that is spread by skin-to-skin contact, usually through sexual activity. Certain types of HPV strains (HPV 16 and 18) are considered high-risk and are linked to developing cancer of the cervix, vulva and vagina.

Although HPV infection is common and the body can often clear the infection by itself, sometimes the infection becomes chronic which is what can increase risk of developing cancer.

2. Can cervical cancer be prevented?
The best way to prevent cervical cancer is to have testing to find pre-cancerous lesions. This is commonly done with a Pap smear and HPV testing. If the pre-cancerous lesions are treated, then cervical cancer can be stopped before it really starts. Talk to your gynecologist about how frequently this testing should be done. Since there is a vaccine to prevent HPV infection, being vaccinated in childhood is an important way to prevent HPV infection and risk of cervical cancer.

3. How is cervical cancer detected?
Most women with early cervical cancer or pre-cancerous lesions do not have symptoms, but these abnormalities can be detected on routine exam. Please visit your gynecologist regularly for early detection. When cervical cancer begins to grow, the most common signs and symptoms include abnormal vaginal bleeding, unusual vaginal discharge or pain during intercourse. If any of these symptoms occur, please see your gynecologist immediately.

4. How is cervical cancer treated?
Treatment of cervical cancer varies depending on the stage of disease (how much the cancer has spread). For the earliest stages of cervical cancer, surgery or radiation combined with chemotherapy can be used. For later stages, radiation combined with chemotherapy is the main treatment. Treating cervical cancer frequently involves several specialists, including gynecologic oncologists, radiation oncologists, and medical oncologists.

5. Are clinical trials available for cervical cancer patients?
Clinical trials are carefully designed and controlled studies done with patients who are interested in exploring new treatment options. Involvement in a clinical trial is strictly voluntary. Clinical trials are available at UNC REX and at UNC Medical Center. If you are interested in learning more, please discuss options with your doctor.

6. Is cervical cancer curable?
The ability to cure cervical cancer depends greatly on the stage of the cancer when it is detected. Rates of cure are greater than 90% when detected at the earliest stage but decline with advancing stage. The best option is to prevent cervical cancer from developing in the first place! In addition to early detection and vaccination, it is important not to smoke, maintain a healthy weight, and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. If cervical cancer is detected, maintaining these healthy habits will help you to recover from treatment.