Sunday, September 26, 2004

Pre-op decisions: Keep my cervix or not?

When considering a hysterectomy, there are several options that may be up to you when the decision is made just which parts of what are to be removed. Women who are having a vaginal hysterectomy don't get this choice: their cervix has to be removed in order to obtain access to the uterus through the vagina. But for women having an abdominal procedure, it is sometimes possible to leave the cervix, the muscular join between the uterus and vagina. If the cervix is not retained, then the top of the vagina is closed with a "cuff" or a special turned-over seam very like the French seaming on the inside of most jeans legs. Let's look at some of the concerns with the cervix decision.

Cervical cancer

There are several considerations related to cancer. If you have or are at high risk for cervical cancer, your surgeon will most likely advise that you have it removed. Removal of your cervix will greatly lower your risk of this particular cancer, although you will continue to need pap smears to monitor vaginal health. Sometimes women question whether they should have it removed just to eliminate the chance of cancer. Cervical cancer has some highly specific risk factors and otherwise fairly low risks for the rest of the population, so you need to do some research on cervical cancer to see if you feel you fall into that population. If you do not, it may not be anything to worry about. [update to this topic]

Mechanical concerns

Because the cervix is an integral part of the muscular support of the upper vagina and uterus, there used to be considerable feeling that removing the cervix made shifting that support more complicated and more prone to failure. This would, in turn, lead to a need for further (future) surgery to tack those organs back up. Most current surgeons use newer operative techniques for supporting these organs, and so this is less of a concern today than it was a decade ago. If you are talking with women about their experiences with this, be sure you know when they're talking about and how skilled/current their surgeon was. Assuming that you have normal tissue health generally, it is unlikely to be a problem for you if your surgeon is up to date and skilled.


If you keep your cervix, you will probably continue to experience small "mini-periods" or episodes of light spotting. This is because there will be a little retained uterine tissue along the edges that may continue to cycle if you keep your ovaries or if your HRT fluctuates. It's just not possible to separate cervix from uterus with total accuracy—they are each a continuation of the other, in terms of tissue differentiation—and so while your surgeon will do his best, the division may not be 100% accurate. Some women find these mini-periods deeply troubling; others aren't the slightest bit bothered by them. Knowing that this may happen will go a long way towards letting you take them in stride.


And then there's sex. Some women feel that cervical stimulation is an important part of their sexual response and orgasm. For those women, loss of the cervix may alter the nature of their orgasmic sensations, although not necessarily their ability to experience them. Many women are also concerned that removal of their uterus will remove that sense of muscular contraction that accompanies orgasm. That is not the case: while your uterus is removed, other abdominal muscles still respond in that way and, again, it may be a little different, but it is not necessarily diminished or less satisfying. So for any woman, the question may come down to her own appraisal of how important her cervix is to her sexual satisfaction. For those who find cervical stimulation uncomfortable rather than pleasurable, there's certainly no loss at all in having it removed.

Another concern in removing your cervix is vaginal length. The top of the vagina, you'll recall from a couple paragraphs above, is stitched into a cervix-like gathered knot called a "cuff." This actually consumes very little tissue. A certain number of women when they first get the okay to resume intercourse, however, find that they feel as though they are very very short now. This is a function of healing, not a too-short vagina. It takes a long time—months to a year—for vaginal tissue to regain its proper elasticity around the incisions. Normal vaginal tissue is very elastic, and the area around the incision is going to be stiff and unyielding for some time. This gives you much more of a sensation of an abrupt "end" than you normally experience. This will pass with time, but doctors rarely warn women of this and it causes more needless misery than nearly anything else to do with a hyst. Unless you are having major reconstructive repairs of rectoceles or cystoceles (tears in the vaginal wall that let bladder or rectum protrude in), this is only going to be a temporary healing phase. If vaginal length is for some reason a particular concern for you, discuss this aspect of your surgery with your doctor in your pre-op appointments and plan together how best to deal with it.

Pap smears

And, finally, there's the need for pap smears. If you keep your cervix, you will continue to need regular pap smears on whatever schedule you've always used. But, if you have your cervix removed, you will still need regular pap smears, albeit possibly on a less frequent schedule. As with the mini-period, there's no clear line between cervix and vagina and there is a risk of retaining some cervical cells in with the new vaginal cuff. That means a small risk remains of developing cervical cancer in those cells. There is also, some doctors feel, enough of a chance of developing vaginal cancer that they advocate exams and testing to check for that as well. You might want to ask your doctor about your post-op testing needs in each scenario and how he evaluates your risk level as part of making your decision.

Those are the main concerns with keeping or having your cervix removed. We'll each weight them differently, so it's definitely worth thinking through how each factor affects your individual body rather than just relying on other women's opinions of how they were affected by cervical removal or not. This is one of the areas where the outcomes of our surgery are partially under our control, so it's worth some deep consideration and discussion with your surgeon or regular gynecologist.

And just in case you like visual aids or aren't entirely certain what we're talking about, here's a photo of a cervix, speculum view, and a drawing of a uterus, etc showing the cervix.