What it is There are more than 100 types of the human papillomavirus (HPV). About 30 types can be transmitted sexually, and about half of these may be connected to cervical cancer. The vast majority of HPV infections simply go away on their own. But sometimes an infection persists, and that can lead to cervical cancer.
How common There were approximately 12,000 cases of cervical cancer diagnosed in the United States in 2008, and about 4,000 women died of it.
Red flags Precancerous lesions generally are not accompanied by any symptoms. But once cancer has developed, there may be irregular bleeding between periods and bloody post-coital discharge. (Keep in mind, however, that these also can be caused by factors other than cancer.)
Risk reduction Pap tests, which detect abnormal cervical-cell changes, should be done every year with a standard Pap smear, or every two years using a liquid-based test (such as ThinPrep), according to new guidelines from the American Cancer Society (ACS). If you're 30 or older and have had three normal test results in a row, you may get screened every two to three years with your doctor's approval; recently, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration approved combining a Pap smear and an HPV test for women in this age group. That's because if you're diagnosed with HPV when you're older, you're more likely to have a strain of the virus that won't go away on its own and may lead to cancer, so you'll need to be monitored more regularly. If you're under 30, however, HPV tests are not useful, because HPV is so common in young women.
Treatment options The good news is that most significant abnormalities are detected by screening and treated before cancer develops. If your test result shows a low-grade change, your doctor may perform a colposcopy to get a closer look at the cervix. For high-grade changes, you'll have a colposcopy and the doctor may biopsy a small amount of tissue. If the lesions are more extensive, you'll need a cone biopsy, which involves taking a large tissue sample from the cervix. A combination of therapies may be used for invasive cervical cancer, such as surgery (hysterectomy), chemotherapy and/or radiation.
Survival rate When cervical lesions are still precancerous, they are virtually 100 percent treatable. The five-year relative survival rate for the earliest stage of invasive cervical cancer is 92 percent. For advanced invasive cervical cancer, the rate drops to about 16 percent. The overall (all stages combined) five-year survival rate for the disease is about 71 percent, according to the ACS.