Cervical cancer is the growth of abnormal cells in the cervix. The abnormal cells are called a tumor.
The cervix is the lower part of the uterus that opens into the vagina. The uterus is the muscular organ at the top of the vagina. Babies grow in the uterus, and menstrual blood comes from the uterus, through the cervix.
Cervical cancer is one of the most common cancers affecting women. Most often, it develops in women age 40 or older.
The exact cause of cervical cancer is not clear. However, we do know that women with certain risk factors may be more likely than others to have cervical cancer.
The main risk factor for cervical cancer is infection with human papillomavirus (HPV). There are many types of HPV and they can infect different parts of the body. Some types infect the genital area and can develop into cancer.
Other possible or related risk factors are:
The cells in the cervix start to change before they become cancerous. These precancerous changes are called cervical intraepithelial neoplasia, or CIN. Early detection and treatment of precancerous cells can prevent the cells from becoming cancer.
Abnormal cells in the cervix and the early stages of cervical cancer do not always cause symptoms.
In its later stages, cervical cancer causes abnormal vaginal bleeding or a blood-stained vaginal discharge at unexpected times. For example, you may have bleeding between menstrual periods, after sex, or after menopause. Menstrual periods may last longer and be heavier than normal. You may have more vaginal discharge. The cancer can cause pelvic pain or pain during sex.
Infections or other health problems may also cause these symptoms. If you have any of these symptoms, tell your healthcare provider.
Precancerous or cancerous cells are usually found when you have a pelvic exam and Pap test. This is why a Pap test is suggested for all women 21 or older.
Some women may get an HPV test along with the Pap test. Talk with your provider to see if you need an HPV test.
If your Pap test is not normal, your provider may look at the cervix with a colposcope. A colposcope is a special type of microscope for looking at the vagina and cervix. The test is called a colposcopy. Your provider may remove a sample of tissue (biopsy). The sample may be removed by cutting off a tiny piece of the cervix. Or it may be removed by taking scrapings from the lining of the cervical canal. The tissue samples are tested in the lab.
Sometimes abnormal cells may not be picked up with a Pap test. If an area of your cervix does not look normal in a pelvic exam, your provider may suggest a biopsy of the area even if your Pap test was normal.
There are 2 types of cervical cancer:
They are treated in similar ways. They may be treated with surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of these treatments.
Surgery to remove the cervix and uterus is called a hysterectomy. Tissue on the sides of the cervix may also be removed. In some cases the fallopian tubes and ovaries are removed as well.
The surgeon may remove lymph nodes in the pelvic area to check for cancer. If cancer cells have reached the lymph nodes, it means the disease may have spread to other parts of the body.
If your uterus is removed, you will no longer be able to have children. For very early cervical cancer, other methods may be used to try to remove cancerous tissue but keep your ability to have children. For example, a surgical procedure called a cone biopsy may be done. This procedure removes a cone-shaped piece of tissue from the cervix and cervical canal. A scalpel, a laser, or an electrical current may be used to do the cone biopsy.
If surgery is not a possible treatment for you, your healthcare provider may suggest radiation therapy instead. Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells.
Two types of radiation therapy may be used to treat cervical cancer: internal or external radiation.
Chemotherapy uses anticancer drugs to kill cancer cells. Anticancer drugs for cervical cancer are usually given through a vein. Chemotherapy is used more often when the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
When it is found early and treated, cervical cancer is highly curable. If it is not treated, the cancer may spread. As the tumor gets bigger or spreads beyond the cervix, the chance of cure is less. However, combined treatment with surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy does improve the chance of survival.
The earlier cervical cancer is found and treated, the greater the chances are that you will keep your ability to have children. If you are diagnosed with cervical cancer during pregnancy, your provider will discuss with you the risks of being treated and the risks of not being treated.
If you have been diagnosed with cervical cancer:
To help reduce your risk of cervical cancer: