Cervical Cancer: The Basics
The cervix is located at the bottom of the uterus (womb), connecting the uterus to the vagina. The cervix can be seen and tested by your healthcare provider during a pelvic examination. Cervical cancer is caused by cervical cells growing out of control. As the number of cells grows, they form into a tumor. The most common type of cervical cancer is called squamous cell carcinoma. When cervical cancer spreads from the cervix to another part of the body, it is called metastatic cervical cancer.
Almost all cervical cancers are caused by a virus called HPV (human papillomavirus). HPV is a sexually transmitted disease that is very common. However, very few women who have HPV will develop cervical cancer; so simply having HPV doesn't mean that you will get cancer.
Other things that increase the risk of developing cervical cancer include having multiple sexual partners, other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), HIV infection, and smoking.
Screening for cervical cancer depends on your age, history of abnormal Pap tests, and history of cervical pre-cancer. Women with certain health issues, such as HIV, a compromised immune system, being exposed to DES before birth, and issues with their cervix in the past, may need more frequent screening. Ask your provider what screening is right for you.
Signs & Symptoms
Signs and symptoms of cervical cancer are usually not experienced until the tumor has grown in size. Symptoms can include:
- Bleeding that is not normal, such as bleeding after sexual intercourse, in between periods, heavier/longer lasting menstrual bleeding, or bleeding after menopause.
- Vaginal discharge that is not normal (may smell bad).
- Pelvic or back pain.
- Pain with urination.
- Blood in the stool or urine.
- Pain during sex.
If the results of your Pap test are not normal, your provider will ask you to have more testing done. This can include HPV testing, repeat pap test in a few months, or a biopsy. A biopsy is done to determine if the abnormal pap result is due to cancer or not.
To guide treatment, cervical cancer is "staged." The stage is based on:
- Size and location of the tumor.
- Whether cancer cells are in the lymph nodes.
- Whether cancer cells have spread to other areas of the body.
Stages range from stage I (smallest, most confined tumors) to stage IV (tumors that have spread to other areas of the body). The stage of your cervical cancer will guide your treatment plan.
In general, the following treatments are used:
- Surgery is the main treatment when the cancer is in an early stage. The type of surgery will depend on the stage of cancer and if the patient wishes to have children in the future. The cervix, uterus and possibly the ovaries will be removed. This is called a hysterectomy.
- Radiation therapy is often used in patients with cervical cancer.
- Chemotherapy may also be used to treat cervical cancer.
- These treatments may be used alone or in combination.
This article is a basic guide to cervical cancer. You can learn more information about cervical cancer and treatment by using the links below.