If you are diagnosed with cervical dysplasia, it means that abnormal changes are beginning to take place in the cells lining the surface of your cervix, the part of your reproductive system that forms the entrance to your uterus. The word dysplasia means abnormal cell growth. The cells of your cervix will begin to show microscopic changes and will start to divide at a faster rate than normal.
If left untreated, cervical dysplasia could progress to become cervical cancer. Despite improvements in diagnosis and treatment over the past 50 years, cancer of the cervix continues to threaten the health of American women. It is the second most common cancer in women, most often striking those between the ages of 35 and 55. It is a cancer that progresses very slowly and may take up to ten years to develop. If detected in the early stages, it can be treated effectively and the long-term prognosis is very good.
There are no warning signs or symptoms for cervical dysplasia. The only reliable way to detect this pre-cancerous condition is to have an annual Pap smear, a laboratory test of a small sample of your cervical tissue.
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What Causes Cervical Dysplasia?
Scientists don’t know what causes the cell changes of cervical dysplasia, but they suspect that it is something spread through sexual contact. Current research indicates that the human papillomavirus (HPV), a virus that causes sexually transmitted genital infections, may be the trigger that begins the sequence of abnormal cell growth.1
There are three stages of cervical dysplasia. If abnormal cells are found only on the surface of the cervix, the condition is considered mild. Unfortunately, these pre-cancerous cells often spread deeper into the tissue of the cervix lining. When this happens, cervical dysplasia is labeled as moderate or severe, depending on the extent of the tissue penetration. Up to 60 percent of women with mild cervical dysplasia find that these cell changes are only temporary. Within 6 to 12 months, the cells of the cervix return to normal and health is no longer at risk. However, once cervical dysplasia reaches the moderate or severe stage, there is a much greater chance that the condition will progress to cervical cancer within the next ten years.
As I mentioned earlier, there are no warning signs of cervical dysplasia. Without the appropriate medical testing, you probably won’t realize that anything is wrong until the disease is well advanced. If you have regular medical check-ups, your doctor may notice a growth or a sore or suspicious area on your cervix during a routine pelvic examination.
But usually cell changes take place long before they can be seen by the naked eye. In most cases, identifiable symptoms don’t appear until the cervical dysplasia has progressed to cervical cancer. At that time, a woman may experience some pain or some intermittent bleeding or spotting between menstrual cycles. To prevent cervical cancer, it is critical that you test for cervical dysplasia by having a Pap smear on a regular basis.
Who’s at Risk?
Women who begin having sexual intercourse at an early age (16 years or younger) and those who have multiple sexual partners are at higher risk for developing cervical dysplasia. So are women who have a history of sexually transmitted disease, especially human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. Other conditions that may predispose you to cervical dysplasia include
• smoking cigarettes or exposure to second-hand smoke
• using oral contraceptives for more than five years
• having a history of a gynecological cancer
• following a diet that’s low in vitamin A, beta-carotene and folate
Studies indicate that many women, including women over the age of 60, recent immigrants and Native American women, do not go to their doctor for annual Pap smears. If you’re sexually active and you don’t get tested regularly for cervical dysplasia, you have a greater chance of developing cervical cancer.
Ever since the Pap test was introduced in North America after World War II, we’ve seen a dramatic decline in the number of deaths caused by cervical cancer. To perform a Pap test, your doctor will conduct a regular pelvic examination. Using a small spatula and a brush, he or she will scrape some cells from the surface of your cervix and smear these cells on a slide. This tiny tissue sample will then be sent to a laboratory and examined under a microscope for abnormal cells.
The Pap smear identifies pre-cancerous changes in cervical cells and it also indicates the presence of invasive cancer cells. But an abnormal result does not always mean your health is at risk. Sometimes a virus may cause temporary cell changes that will disappear after a short period of time.
A normal Pap smear result is reassuring because it indicates that you have a very low risk of cervical cancer. However, it is not a guarantee that your cervix is cancer-free. It is possible that cancer cells or abnormal cells can be missed if they are not part of the tissue sample collected for the test. For that reason doctors recommend that women who are sexually active or who are over 18 years old have a Pap smear once every year.