(Cancer of the Cervix)
Cervical cancer is a disease in which cancer cells grow in the cervix. The cervix is the lower, narrow part of the uterus (womb) that connects the uterus with the vagina.
Cancer occurs when cells in the body (in this case, epithelial cervix cells lining the cervical canal) divide without control or order. Normally, cells divide in a regulated manner. If cells keep dividing uncontrollably, a mass of tissue forms, called a growth or tumor. The term cancer refers to malignant tumors, which can invade nearby tissue and spread to other parts of the body. A benign tumor does not invade or spread.
Research suggests that some sexually transmitted viruses (eg, human papilloma virus ) can cause the nuclei in cervical cells to begin the changes that can lead to cancer.
Scientists believe several risk factors act together. These include:
- Infection of the cervix with the human papillomavirus (HPV)—the primary risk factor for cervical cancer
- History of cervical dysplasia
Symptoms usually do not appear until the abnormal cells become cancerous. They invade nearby tissue. When this happens, the most common symptom is abnormal bleeding, which may include:
- Bleeding between regular menstrual periods
- Bleeding after sexual intercourse, douching, or a pelvic exam (most common)
- Menstrual bleeding that lasts longer and is heavier than usual
- Vaginal bleeding after menopause
These symptoms may also be caused by other, less serious health conditions. If you experience these symptoms, see you doctor.
Tests to diagnose cervical cancer include:
Pap test—The Pap test detects cervical cancer. It will also detect cervical dysplasia (a precancerous development). The doctor collects a sample of cells from the cervix to be tested.
- If you are sexually active, you should have a yearly Pap test. If you have any abnormal results, follow-up with your doctor. New studies indicate that women aged 30 or older who have had three or more normal annual Pap tests can safely lengthen the Pap screening to once every three years. Talk to your doctor about what is right for you.
- HPV test—The same cervical material obtained from the Pap test can be tested for the HPV virus.
Once cervical cancer is found, further tests are performed to find out if the cancer has spread beyond the cervix, and, if so, to what extent. This process is called staging. Treatment depends on the stage of the cancer.
The cancerous tumor, nearby tissue, and possibly nearby lymph nodes may be removed. The doctor may remove only the tumor and surrounding normal tissue if the tumor is very localized within the cervix. In some cases, a hysterectomy is necessary.
If the cancer is at a high stage, more tissue must be removed. Sometimes the ovaries and fallopian tubes also are removed.
Radiation Therapy (Radiotherapy)
- External radiation therapy—radiation directed at the tumor from a source outside the body
- Internal radiation therapy—radioactive materials placed in or near the cancer cells
This therapy may also be used to help control pain and bleeding when a cure is no longer possible.
Chemotherapy is usually combined with radiation therapy.
If you are diagnosed with cervical cancer, follow your doctor's instructions .
Finding and treating precancerous tissue in the cervix is the most effective way to prevent cervical cancer. Talk to your doctor about an appropriate schedule of check-ups. You should continue to receive regular Pap smears. Another effective approach is to reduce your risk of exposure to the HPV virus. There are currently two methods to accomplish this:
- Safe sexual practice—Limit the number of sexual partners and use condoms.
- HPV vaccination
American Cancer Society
National Cervical Cancer Coalition
Canadian Cancer Society
Women's Health Matters
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Postpartum hemorrhage. In: ACOG Practice Bulletin 76. October 2006.
Cervical cancer. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/cervical/ . Accessed July 11, 2008.
Cervical cancer homepage. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/types/cervical . Accessed July 11, 2008.
What is cervical cancer? American Cancer Society website. Available at: http://www.cancer.org/docroot/CRI/content/CRI_2_4_1X_What_is_cervical_cancer_8.asp . Accessed July 11, 2008.
Last reviewed February 2009 by
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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