Cervical cancer is a primary type of gynecologic cancer afflicting women’s reproductive organs. If detected in the early stages, this cancer can be halted by attacking pre-cancerous or cancerous cells without the need to remove the uterus or damage the cervix. However, the failure to make a timely diagnosis can allow the cancer to quickly spread.
What Is Cervical Cancer?
Cervical cancer occurs when abnormal cells grow out of control on the cervix, or the lower part of the uterus that opens into the vagina. A virus – known as human papillomavirus (HPV) – is the usual cause of cervical cancer. HPV is often transmitted through sexual contact with someone who already has the virus. High risk factors for developing cervical cancer include having sex at an early age, having multiple sex partners or having a partner or many partners who are active in high-risk sexual activities. You can unknowingly have HPV in your body for years before it causes cervical cancer.
How Is Cervical Cancer Diagnosed?
Symptoms of cervical cancer include:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding
- Frequent vaginal discharge tinged with blood
- Pain during sex
- Unexplained changes in the menstrual cycle
- Bleeding when something comes into contact with your cervix.
Cervical cancer may spread to the bladder, intestines, lungs and liver. Often no symptoms appear until the cancer is advanced and has spread. Symptoms of advanced cervical cancer may include:
- Back pain
- Bone pain or fractures
- Leaking of urine or feces from the vagina
- Leg pain
- Loss of appetite
- Pelvic pain
- Single swollen leg
- Weight loss.
A Pap test as part of a regular pelvic examination can detect changes in the cervical cells before they become cancerous. The Pap test involves taking a sample of cells from a woman’s cervix, and examining them for any abnormal changes. Should abnormal cells be detected, a gynecologist can conduct a colposcopy, which involves viewing the cervix with a magnifying instrument known as a colposcope. Another follow-up procedure is a cone biopsy, where a cone-shaped wedge of tissue is taken from the cervix and examined under a microscope for any sign of cancer. If cancer is detected, a physician may order additional tests to determine if the cancer has spread, including a chest X-ray, CT scan, MRI, a cystoscopy (a procedure using a telescope to see the inside of the bladder and urethra), or intravenous pyelogram (a special X-ray examination of the kidneys and bladder).
Guarding Against HPV: A Key to Cervical Cancer Prevention
The NCI states that there are more than 150 types of HPV. Forty types can be passed from one person to another through sexual contact.
Refraining from sexual contact is the only way to ensure that you do not get an HPV. If you are sexually active, you are safest in a monogamous relationship with a partner who is not infected, according to the NCCC. Otherwise, condoms are the most effective prevention, with about a 70 percent rate of effectiveness, the NCCC states.
Other risk factors for HPV are:
- Multiple sexual partners
- Sexual intercourse at an early age
- Chlamydia infection
- Weakened immune system or HIV infection.
There are two HPV vaccines available — Gardasil and Cervarix, according to the Mayo Clinic. These vaccines offer protection from several of the most dangerous types of HPV. Gardasil is approved for males and females ages 9 to 26. Cervarix is approved for girls and women ages 9 to 25.
The NCCC states that all girls and young women ages 11 to 26 should be vaccinated against HPV to prevent cervical, vulvar and vaginal cancers.
However, even women who have had the HPV/cervical cancer vaccine will still need to have regular Pap and HPV tests. The vaccines do not protect against all types of HPV. Also, about 30 percent of cervical cancers will not be prevented by HPV vaccination, according to the NIC.
Surviving Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer typically has no symptoms in the early stage. Possible symptoms of more advanced disease may include abnormal or irregular vaginal bleeding, pain during sex or vaginal discharge.
If you are diagnosed with cancer of the cervix, you have a good chance of surviving. The overall five-year survival rate is 67.9 percent. The NIC states that about 47 percent of cervical cancer cases are found in the “localized” stage, which means it is only in the cervix. Those cases have a 90.9 percent five-year survival rate.
When cervical cancer has spread, there is a still a 57 percent survival rate at the regional stage, which means the cancer has spread only to nearby lymph nodes. If the cancer has spread to distant areas of the body (metastasized), the five-year survival rate drops to 16.1 percent.
Treatment for cervical cancer depends on the stage of the cancer, the size and shape of the tumor and the patient’s age, health and desire to have children in the future, the NCCC reports.
Treatment options include:
- Surgery – Initially, the patient will undergo conization, or cone biopsy, which is scraping the cervix to obtain a tissue sample to be examined microscopically. Then, the patient may undergo a hysterectomy, which is removal of the uterus (including the cervix). In some cases, a radical hysterectomy, which includes removal of the uterus and a portion of the vagina, is necessary. Depending on how the cancer has spread, other abdominal surgery may be recommended.
- Radiation therapy – Radiation may be used to kill cancer cells or to arrest their growth. Depending on the type and stage of cancer, the patient may undergo external radiation therapy, in which a machine outside the body directs radiation toward the cancer, or internal radiation therapy with a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer.
- Chemotherapy – “Chemo” uses drugs to either kill cancer cells or stop them from dividing. Depending on the stage and location of the cancer, chemotherapy may be taken by mouth, injected into a vein or muscle or placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid, an organ or a body cavity such as the uterus.
- Targeted therapy – In some cases, drug, toxins or radioactive materials are used to attack specific cancer cells without harming normal cells. Bevacizumab, a monoclonal antibody that binds to a protein called vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), often is used to treat cervical cancer that has metastasized and recurrent cervical cancer.
If you believe that you or a loved one has suffered harm due to the delayed diagnosis of cervical cancer, it is important to protect your legal rights. The delay may have been the result of a medical professional’s negligence. Contact Powers & Santola, LLP, to learn more.
Missed or Delayed Diagnosis of Cervical Cancer
While a Pap test as part of a regular pelvic exam is usually an effective method for detecting cervical cancer early, a gynecologist may misread the Pap smear results or improperly perform the pelvic exam. A pathologist at the laboratory where the Pap test sample is sent may improperly perform the testing. Other missteps include an improperly performed or assessed biopsy or colposcopy. A gynecologist may fail to perform follow up assessments or testing even when a Pap test reveals abnormal cell growth. Treatments depend on a woman’s age and health, the size and shape of the tumor, the stage of the cancer, and a woman’s desire to have children in the future. Treatments include cryotherapy (freezing abnormal cells), laser therapy (using a light beam to burn abnormal tissue) or loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP), which involves the use of electricity to destroy abnormal cells. If the cancer has not spread, a doctor can surgically remove the cancer along with pelvic lymph nodes, without having to remove both ovaries and fallopian tubes. If the cervical cancer has spread, treatments include chemotherapy and radiation therapy. A radical hysterectomy is another treatment option for more advanced cervical cancer. This surgery involves removing the uterus and much of the surrounding tissues, including lymph nodes and the upper part of the vagina. An extreme type of surgery, known as pelvic exenteration, removes all pelvic organs.
Consequences of Missed or Delayed Diagnoses of Cervical Cancer
The prognosis for cervical cancer depends on many factors, such as the stage of the cancer, a woman’s age and general health, whether the cancer returns after treatment, and the type of cervical cancer (some types do not respond well to treatment). If treated properly, pre-cancerous conditions can be completely cured. Women have a good chance for a five-year survival rate if the cancer has only spread to the inside of the cervix walls but not outside of the cervical area. The five-year survival rate declines if the cancer spreads outside the walls of the cervix into other areas of the body.
Our Delayed Cervical Cancer Diagnosis Attorneys Can Help You
For more than 30 years, Powers & Santola, LLP, has assisted patients and their families in Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, and surrounding communities in New York to seek justice for injuries caused by a failure to diagnose a medical condition, including cervical and other gynecologic cancers. Allow us to put our experience, talent and resources to work for you and provide a careful and thorough review of your case. Contact us today by phone at 518.465.5995 or through our online chat.