Cervical cancer is an abnormal growth of cells in the cervix that develops following cervical dysplasia and can be life-threatening. For people living with HIV, cervical cancer is considered an opportunistic infection.
Many women with cervical cancer do not experience any symptoms. When there are symptoms, they can be similar to symptoms of sexually transmitted infections:
- unusual vaginal discharge that may be tinged with blood
- bleeding or spotting between periods
- bloody discharge after sexual intercourse or any activity that involves contact with the cervix
- ache or pain in the lower back or abdomen
Cervical cancer has been linked to HPV (human papillomavirus), a very common sexually transmitted disease. It can develop if cervical dysplasia, which is caused by HPV, is left untreated. Cervical dysplasia, and eventually cervical cancer, may also develop as a result of a weakened immune system. Women with HIV who have a low CD4+ count are especially at risk for cervical cancer and recurrences even after treatment. Smoking also increases the risk of developing cervical cancer.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Having Pap smears on a regular basis is an important way of watching your cervical health and catching anything before it becomes serious. Check out anything unusual or different with your health care provider. It could save your life.
Treatments vary, depending on the size and severity of the cancer. The goal is to be the most effective at removing the cancer and the least invasive at affecting the body. A cone biopsy can treat small areas by cutting a cone of cervical tissue out to remove the affected area. This is usually done in a hospital under anesthetic. Surgical approaches include partial or full hysterectomy that may be followed up by radiation, chemotherapy, or both.
Reduce Your Risk
Reducing your risk of cervical cancer relates directly to how you look after yourself:
- Have regular pelvic exams and Pap smears to check for sexually transmitted infections and cervical dysplasia, the condition that leads to cervical cancer
- Practise safer sex
- Quit smoking