Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that occurs in the cells of the cervix — the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina.
Various strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection, play a role in causing most cervical cancer.
When exposed to HPV, the body’s immune system typically prevents the virus from doing harm. In a small percentage of people, however, the virus survives for years, contributing to the process that causes some cervical cells to become cancer cells.
You can reduce your risk of developing cervical cancer by having screening tests and receiving a vaccine that protects against HPV infection.
Cervical cancer treatment is typically successful if you’re diagnosed in the early stages. Survival rates are very high.
Pap smears have led to increased detection and treatment of precancerous cellular changes. This has reduced the incidence of cervical cancer in the Western world.
The type of treatment used for cervical cancer depends on the stage at diagnosis. More advanced cancers usually require a combination of treatments. Standard treatments include:
- radiation therapy
- other medications
Cervical cancer occurs when the cells of the cervix grow abnormally and invade other tissues and organs of the body. When it is invasive, this cancer affects the deeper tissues of the cervix and may have spread to other parts of the body (metastasis), most notably the lungs, liver, bladder, vagina, and rectum
Cervical cancer begins when healthy cells in the cervix develop changes (mutations) in their DNA. A cell’s DNA contains the instructions that tell a cell what to do.
Healthy cells grow and multiply at a set rate, eventually dying at a set time. The mutations tell the cells to grow and multiply out of control, and they don’t die. The accumulating abnormal cells form a mass (tumor). Cancer cells invade nearby tissues and can break off from a tumor to spread (metastasize) elsewhere in the body.
It isn’t clear what causes cervical cancer, but it’s certain that HPV plays a role. HPV is very common, and most people with the virus never develop cancer. This means other factors — such as your environment or your lifestyle choices — also determine whether you’ll develop cervical cancer.
How to Identify?
In order to diagnose cervical cancer, your doctor may perform:
- Pap smear: This examination is performed by scraping cells from the cervix. The cells are then sent to a lab where they are analyzed in order to detect any abnormalities.
- Colposcopy: This examination uses a low-powered microscope to view the cervix so your doctor can locate any abnormalities and biopsy the area. However, a biopsy may be performed without a colposcopy.
- Biopsy: A sampling of potentially affected tissues with a needle.
If cancer has been detected, your doctor will evaluate its local extent to determine whether surgical removal is a suitable option.
Vaginal bleeding after intercourse, between periods or after menopause
- Watery, bloody vaginal discharge that may be heavy and have a foul odor
- Pelvic pain or pain during intercourse
What to Do?
After you’ve been diagnosed, your doctor will assign your cancer a stage. The stage tells whether the cancer has spread, and if so, how far it’s spread. Staging your cancer can help your doctor find the right treatment for you.
Cervical cancer has four stages:
- Stage 1: The cancer is small. It may have spread to the lymph nodes. It hasn’t spread to other parts of your body.
- Stage 2: The cancer is larger. It may have spread outside of the uterus and cervix or to the lymph nodes. It still hasn’t reached other parts of your body.
- Stage 3: The cancer has spread to the lower part of the vagina or to the pelvis. It may be blocking the ureters, the tubes that carry urine from the kidneys to the bladder. It hasn’t spread to other parts of your body.
- Stage 4: The cancer may have spread outside of the pelvis to organs like your lungs, bones, or liver.