Cervical cancer is one of the most common types of cancer among women in the U.S. The Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) that infects cells in the cervix and disrupts normal growth and replication causes the vast majority of cases of cervical cancer. If allowed to progress, that disruption can develop into full-blown cancer that kills about 4,000 women per year.
Fortunately, those rates are far lower than they used to be. Cervical cancer used to be the most common cancer in women, but the HPV vaccine now prevents many infections from ever occurring and screening tests like the Pap smear have allowed doctors to catch the cancer in its very early stages when it can still be destroyed completely. There were concerns that this surgery might affect a woman’s ability to get pregnant, but new research has shown that not to be the case.
What happens when a woman has a positive Pap?
When a Pap smear is positive, her doctor will do several other tests to look for cancer in her cervix. If a pre-cancerous area on her cervix is found, her physicians will remove or destroy the area to prevent the cancer from growing and spreading. If the area is small, this may involve using a laser or special chemical to burn the area. If the cancer is more extensive, surgeons sometimes have to physically cut out a larger part of the cervix.
How does this affect pregnancy?
Past research had shown that women with these sorts of surgeries went into premature labor more often, likely because the cervix is less able to hold itself closed when a baby starts to grow larger and press more on the exit to the uterus. While this is concerning, it’s something that can be monitored and managed effectively by a medical team. Questions still remained, though, about whether getting these procedures might affect a woman’s ability to get pregnant in the first place.
What did this research examine?
That question arose because cutting or damaging the cervix could lead to scarring. Some medical professionals feared that these surgical procedures might cause the cervix to scar in a way that would prevent sperm from accessing a woman’s egg making it more difficult or even impossible to get pregnant. To test this, a group of researchers followed almost 100,000 women in Northwest Washington and Oregon for almost 12 years. They compared pregnancy rates of women who had surgery to remove a pre-cancerous area of their cervix against those who hadn’t had the procedure.
What did the researchers find?
When the two groups were compared, the researchers found that pregnancy rates were actually higher amongst the group of women who had their cancer removed compared to those who never needed surgery. The researchers think the reason the rate is higher is due to some other factor that they weren’t able to identify in their data analysis. For example, it might be the case that women who are infected with HPV have sex more often, making them more likely to get pregnant. In any case, the team says that their research indicates that surgically removing cancer from the cervix doesn’t appear to have any effect on a woman’s ability to get pregnant.
Why does this matter to me?
Unless you were vaccinated with the HPV vaccine early in life, chances are good that you’ll have a positive Pap smear at some point in your life and may even be diagnosed with cervical cancer. If you need surgery to remove the pre-cancerous area of your cervix, you can rest assured that the surgery won’t affect your ability to get pregnant and have children in the future.