Cervical cancer 101
Like all cancers, cervical cancer results from the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells. As these cells build up they begin to form a tumor. Eventually, the tumor may invade and damage nearby healthy tissues. Cancer cells can also break away, travel to other parts of the body and start other tumors.
Cervical cancer starts in the cervix, the narrow lower portion of the uterus that opens into the vagina.
The cervix is the passageway for menstrual fluid leaving the uterus and sperm entering the uterus. It also helps protect the uterus by keeping out foreign objects, fluid, and bacteria or germs that could cause an infection.
The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates that more than 12,000 cases of invasive cervical cancer (cancer that has spread beyond the cervix) occur each year in the United States.
According to the ACS, these factors can increase the risk of cervical cancer:
- Infection with genital human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a sexually transmitted infection (STI). There are several different types of HPV. Some cause genital warts and others cause most cases of cervical cancer.
- Smoking cigarettes.
- Long-term use of oral contraceptives (birth control pills).
- Having a mother who took diethylstilbestrol (DES) while she was pregnant with you. This drug was used from about 1940 to 1970 to prevent miscarriage.
- Multiple pregnancies.
- Low socioeconomic status.
- Infection with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
- A family history of cervical cancer.
Some research shows that infection with chlamydia, a common STI, and a diet low in fruits and vegetables can also increase cervical cancer risk.
According to the National Cancer Institute, if all women had regular pelvic exams and Pap tests, most precancers would be caught before cervical cancer even developed.
During a pelvic exam, the uterus, vagina, ovaries and other reproductive organs are checked for changes in shape or size.
A Pap test involves taking a small sample of cells from the cervix with a brush or wooden spatula. The cell sample is examined under a microscope to check for signs of cancer.
The Pap test can also find precancerous cells, cells that aren't quite normal but haven't yet become cancerous. Treating precancerous cells can prevent the development of cancer.
Talk to your doctor about when to be tested.
Cervical cancer usually doesn't cause symptoms until it starts spreading. That's why screening is so important. When symptoms do show up, they may include:
- Bleeding after sex or after douching, pelvic exams or menopause.
- Increased vaginal discharge, which may be watery and smell unpleasant.
- Bleeding between periods.
- Heavy menstrual flow.
- Painful intercourse.
Cervical cancer can almost always be cured if it's caught before it spreads beyond the surface of the cervix. Cervical cancer often grows slowly and can remain in this early stage for several years. In some cases, though, it can spread into deeper tissues in less than a year.
However long it takes the cancer to spread beyond surface cells, once it breaks this barrier it spreads quickly.
Early stage cervical cancer is treated by removing or destroying the cancerous cells with surgery, cryotherapy (freezing), diathermy (burning) or laser therapy.
If the cancer has spread deep into the cervical tissue or to other organs, more extensive surgery, radiation therapy or chemotherapy may be used.
The farther the cancer has spread, the more difficult it is to treat effectively.
Several strategies can help women avoid cervical cancer:
- Get the HPV vaccine, recommended for all girls at age 11 or 12 by the ACS. The HPV vaccine series is also recommended for women ages 13 to 26 who have not started the vaccines, or who have started but not completed the series. The HPV vaccine protects women from the strains of HPV that cause 70 percent of all cervical cancers. It's most effective in women who have not become sexually active.
- Get regular screening to detect cervical cancer before it's fully developed.
- Avoid HPV by limiting the number of people you have sex with, avoiding sex with people who have had many sexual partners and waiting until at least age 18 to become sexually active.
- Don't smoke.
To learn more about cervical cancer, visit the Cervical Cancer health topic center. You can also find out more at these websites: