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 the cervix is called cervical cancer. The cervix is the lower end of the uterus. The cervix 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 carcinomastarts in the thin, flat cells on the surface of the cervix. This is by far the most common form of cervical cancer.

  • Adenocarcinomastarts in gland cells of the endocervix.

  • Mixed carcinomais cancer in both types of cells.

What causes cervical cancer?

In most women, cervical cancer is caused by the humanpapilloma virus or HPV. HPV is very common and often goes away on its own. When other risk factors are present, HPV may lead to cervical cancer. Risk factors include:

  • Smoking

  • Other lifestyle factors such as diet and activity

  • Being overweight

  • Using certain types of birth control

  • Early sex or having many sexual partners

  • Having other sexually transmitted diseases

  • Having a weak immune system

  • Having multiple full term pregnancies

  • Getting pregnant before age 17

  • Having a family history of cervical cancer

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

What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?

In early stages of cervical cancer, most women will not have any symptoms. As the disease progresses, the most common symptoms are:

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding

  • Vaginal discharge

  • Pain during sex

However, these symptoms are common to a number of other conditions including infection. See your healthcare provider if you have any of these symptoms and discuss how often you need a Pap test.

How is cervical cancer diagnosed?

Cervical cancer is usually found during a screening Pap test. During a Pap test, cells are taken from a woman’s cervix and checked for changes that may signal dysplasia or cancer. This can help catch cervical cancer early, when it is easiest to treat. Have a Pap test as often as your healthcare provider suggests.

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 toremove part of the cervix or the cervix and the uterus.

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

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

  • Targeted therapy, which uses drugs that are designed to attack and kill cancer cells and  limit the damage to healthy cells

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