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What Is Cervical Cancer?

Outline of female pelvis showing uterus, cervix, and vagina.

Cancer occurs when cells in the body change and grow out of control. These cells can form lumps called tumors. Cancer that starts in cells of the cervix is called cervical cancer. The cervix is the lower end of the uterus. It connects the uterus to the vagina.

Cervical cancer can spread from the cervix to other parts of the body. This spread is called metastasis. The more cancer spreads, the harder it is to treat.

Types of cervical cancer

When cells in the cervix begin to grow in ways that are not normal, it is called dysplasia. Dysplasia is not cancer, but it can lead to cancer if not treated. Once cancer forms, there are 3 possible types:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma. This starts in the thin, flat cells on the surface of the cervix. This is by far the most common form of cervical cancer.

  • Adenocarcinoma. This starts in gland cells of the cervix.

  • Mixed carcinomaor adenosquamous carcinoma. This is cancer in both types of cells.

What causes cervical cancer?

In most women, cervical cancer is caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV infection is very common and often goes away on its own. But in some cases, over time, HPV may lead to cervical cancer. HPV infection is strongly linked to cervical cancer. But it's important to know that most women with HPV don’t develop cervical cancer. Even if you have been vaccinated for HPV, you should continue screening for cervical cancer as recommended.

Other risk factors include:

  • Smoking

  • Other lifestyle factors such as diet and activity

  • Being overweight

  • Long-term use of birth control pills (oral contraceptives) in women who have HPV

  • Being exposed in the womb to diethylstilbestrol (DES) a synthetic form of the female hormone estrogen that was prescribed to pregnant women between 1938 and 1971

  • Having chlamydia or herpes (sexually transmitted infections)

  • HIV infection

  • Having a weak immune system

  • Having multiple sex partners

  • Have a history of high-grade cervical dysplasia or previous treatment for cervical cancer

  • Having a family history of cervical cancer

Talk with your healthcare provider about your own risk for cervical cancer.

Can cervical cancer be prevented?

  • Get routine cervical cancer testing. Regular testing with a Pap or HPV tests can help find cervical cell changes or HPV infections before they become cancer. Treating these changes can keep cancer from starting. Cervical cancer grows slowly. So regular testing can also help find this cancer early—when it's small and easier to treat.

  • Get vaccinated. HPV vaccine can protect against certain types of HPV infection. The vaccine works best if given before an infection with HPV. So it should be given before a person becomes sexually active. It is recommended for both males and females from as young as age 9 until age 26, although it can be given until age 45. It’s a preventive vaccine, so it’s more effective when given before exposure to HPV. But it may benefit people who already have HPV infection. No vaccine gives full protection against all cancer-causing types of HPV. It’s still important to get routine Pap and HPV tests.

  • Don't smoke. Smoking has been linked to cervical precancer and cancer. Women who smoke are about twice as likely as nonsmokers to get cervical cancer. Tobacco smoke contains many cancer-causing chemicals that are carried throughout the body in the blood. These chemicals have been found in the cervical mucus of women who smoke.

  • Use condoms. Condoms need to be used correctly and every time you have sex. But condoms don't offer total protection against HPV infection. That’s because the HPV virus can still be spread through skin-to-skin contact with any infected part of the body. This includes the skin in the genital area that can’t be covered by a condom. Condoms can provide some protection as well as help protect against other sexually transmitted infections.

Talk with your healthcare provider about the cervical cancer screening schedule that's best for you. Also talk about how to prevent cervical cancer.

What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?

In early stages of cervical cancer, most women will not have any symptoms. As the tumor grows or the cancer spreads, the most common symptoms are:

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding

  • Vaginal discharge

  • Pain during or bleeding after sex

These symptoms may seem like other conditions, including infection. See your healthcare provider if you have any of these symptoms. Ask how often you need cervical cancer testing.

How is cervical cancer treated?

You and your healthcare provider will discuss a treatment plan that’s best for your needs. Treatment options may include:

  • Surgery. The part of the cervix with cancer may be removed. Or the entire cervix and the uterus may be removed (total hysterectomy).

  • Radiation therapy. This uses directed rays of energy to kill cancer cells.

  • Chemotherapy. This uses strong medicine to kill cancer cells. It may be used along with radiation therapy.

  • Targeted therapy. This uses medicines (not chemotherapy medicines) that are designed to attack and kill cancer cells and limit the damage to healthy cells.

Author: StayWell Custom Communications
Last Annual Review Date: 6/1/2019
Copyright © The StayWell Company, LLC. except where otherwise noted.
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