Cervical cancer is cancer that starts in the cells of the cervix.
The cervix is the lower, narrow part of the uterus that opens into the vagina. Most cervical cancers begin in an area called the transformation zone, where the inner part of the cervix closest to the uterus meets the outer part of cervix closest to the vagina.
Cervical cancer grows slowly over many years but it can happen in less than a year. Before the cancer develops, abnormal cells — called dysplasia or precancers — appear in the cervix. These cells can be seen on a Pap screening test and often can be removed with an office procedure. Treating these abnormal cells prevents the cancer from developing.
According to the American Cancer Society, about 12,900 new cases of invasive cervical cancer will be diagnosed in 2015 and 4,100 women will die from the disease. Most cases are found in women younger than 50. Over the last 30 years, the cervical death rate has gone down by more than 50 percent. This is due to the increased use of the Pap screening test, which finds changes in the cervix before cancer develops or spreads.
The two main types of cervical cancer are:
- Squamous cell carcinoma - the most common type of cervical cancer and accounts for up to nine out of every 10 diagnoses. These thin, flat cells most often develop in the transformation zone.
- Adenocarcinoma - Most of the other cervical cancers are adenocarcinomas. These develop from the mucus-producing gland cells that line the inner part of the cervix closest to the uterus.
A small number of cervical cancers have features of both squamous cell carcinomas and adenocarcinomas. These are called adenosquamous carcinomas or mixed carcinomas.
What causes cervical cancer?
In recent years, researchers have identified several risk factors that increase the odds that a woman might develop cervical cancer. They include:
- Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) Infection. The most important risk factor for cervical cancer is HPV infection. HPV is a group of more than 150 related viruses, some of which cause genital warts. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted virus in the United States and is responsible for almost all cases of cervical cancer. Vaccines that protect against infection with these types of HPV can greatly reduce the risk of cervical cancer.
- HIV infection
- DES (diethylstilbestrol) exposure
- Chlamydia infection
- Long-term use of oral contraceptives
- Having multiple full-term pregnancies. Research suggests that women who have had three or more full-term pregnancies have an increased risk of developing cervical cancer
- Being younger than 17 at the time of first full-term pregnancy
- Having multiple sexual partners
- Lifestyle choices including diet and smoking
- Family history of cervical cancer
What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?
In its early stages, cervical cancer may not cause symptoms. This is why doctors recommend regular cervical cancer screenings. The tests can help detect cervical cancer in its earliest stages, when it is most treatable.
When symptoms do occur, they may include:
- Pelvic or lower belly pain
- Unusual vaginal discharge
- Pain or bleeding during intercourse
- Bleeding between periods
- Bleeding after menopause