Cervical cancer is cancer of the cells in the cervix. Receiving regular gynecological exams, getting Pap tests and practicing safe sex are the most important steps that you can take toward the prevention of cervical cancer. Surgery, radiation and chemotherapy are the main treatments for cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer, or cancer of the cervix, begins on the surface of your cervix. It happens when the cells on your cervix begin to change to precancerous cells. Not all precancerous cells will turn to cancer, but finding these problematic cells and treating them before they can change is critical to preventing cervical cancer.
There are two main types of cancer of the cervix: squamous cell carcinomas and adenocarcinomas. About 80% to 90% of cervical cancers are squamous cell carcinomas, while 10% to 20% are adenocarcinomas.
The cervix is the lowest part of your uterus (where a baby grows during pregnancy). It looks a little bit like a donut and connects your uterus to the opening of your vagina. It's covered in tissues made up of cells. These healthy cells are what can grow and change to precancer cells.
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About 14,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year. People between the ages of 35 and 44 are most frequently diagnosed with cervical cancer. The average age at diagnosis is 50. Around 4,000 people die of cervical cancer per year. This rate is on the decline due to screenings and the HPV vaccine.
Early stages of cervical cancer don't usually involve symptoms and are hard to detect. The first signs of cervical cancer may take several years to develop. Finding abnormal cells during cervical cancer screenings is the best way to avoid cervical cancer.
If you experience abnormal bleeding, vaginal discharge or any other unexplained symptoms, you should have a complete gynecological examination that includes a Pap test.
Most cervical cancers are caused by the virus HPV, a sexually transmitted infection. HPV spreads through sexual contact (anal, oral or vaginal) and can lead to cancer. Most people will get HPV at some point in their lives and not realize it because their bodies fight the infection. However, if your body doesn't fight the infection, it can cause the cells of your cervix to change to cancerous cells.
There are more than 100 kinds of HPV and about a dozen of them have been shown to lead to cancer. Early detection of these types of HPV is key in preventing cervical cancer. Regular screenings with your healthcare provider can help identify cell changes before they become cancer. The HPV vaccine can help prevent HPV infection by protecting you against the HPV that causes up to 90% of all cervical cancers.
Pain from cervical cancer may not feel like much in the early stages of the disease if you feel anything at all. As cancer progresses and spreads to nearby tissues and organs, you may experience pain in your pelvis or have issues urinating. Other people will feel generally unwell, tired or lose their appetite.
Cervical cancer develops slowly and over many years. Before turning to cancer, the cells in your cervix go through a lot of changes. The once normal cells in your cervix start to appear irregular or abnormal. These abnormal cells may go away, stay the same or turn into cancer cells.
Regular gynecological screenings with a Pap test can detect most cases of cervical cancer. A Pap test, or Pap smear, is a test that collects cells from your cervix. These cells are examined for signs of precancers or other irregularities.
If your Pap comes back as abnormal, further testing is necessary. This could include an HPV test, which is a specific test that checks the cells of your cervix for HPV infection. Certain types of HPV infection are linked to cervical cancer.
Your healthcare provider may also examine your cervix and take a sample of tissue for a biopsy if they suspect you have cancer. There are many techniques that can be used to obtain the tissue, like punch biopsy or endocervical curettage. In other cases, a wire loop or conization are used to gather tissues from the cervix for biopsy.
If the biopsy confirms cancer, further tests will determine whether the disease has spread (metastasized). These tests might include:
This process is called staging.
The tests used to detect cervical cancer are the Pap test and the HPV test. These cervical cancer screenings can find irregular or problematic cells in their earliest form before they have a chance to turn into cancer. When these cells are found early, cervical cancer is highly treatable and less likely to become serious.
Your healthcare provider performs Pap tests and HPV tests by using a brush to swab or scrape your cervix to collect cells. You lie back on an exam table with your feet in stirrups (like during a pelvic exam). A speculum is inserted into your vagina (this opens up your vagina). Once the swab is taken, the cells are put in a liquid and sent to a lab for testing.
The goal of cervical cancer screening is to detect cell changes on your cervix before they become cancer. The number of cases and deaths from cervical cancer in the U.S. has decreased significantly since people have been getting regular cervical cancer screenings.
Your healthcare provider may suggest a combination Pap test/HPV test. This is called co-testing and may be an option for you if you are over 30.
Sometimes. You and your healthcare provider can decide if you need a pelvic exam on the years that you aren't due for cervical cancer screening. This is based your health history and sexual activity.
It's still important to schedule routine care visits with your healthcare provider to discuss your sexual health and other concerns specific to your reproductive health. If you're sexually active and under the age of 25, having annual screenings for chlamydia and gonorrhea may be recommended. Additionally, a clinical breast exam may help find lumps on your breasts.
No, you won't feel cervical cancer with your finger. Cancer cells are tiny and impossible to detect unless under a microscope. If you feel a bump or mass in your vagina, it could be a sign of a polyp or cyst. Call your healthcare provider right away if you feel a bump inside your vagina so they can examine the area.
Most people will not know they have cervical cancer until they are formally diagnosed with the disease. Your healthcare provider will be able to confirm cervical cancer through a series of tests and biopsies. The first signs of cervical cancer are usually mild and can only be detected by your healthcare provider. Advanced stages of cervical cancer are more likely to cause signs and symptoms.
The cervical cancer treatment team includes a gynecologic oncologist (a doctor who specializes in cancers of female reproductive organs). Recommended treatment for cervical cancer is based on many factors including the stage of the disease, your age and general health, and if you want children in the future.
The treatments for cervical cancer are radiation, chemotherapy, surgery, targeted therapy and immunotherapy.
Radiation therapy uses energy beams to kill cancer cells on your cervix. There are two types of radiation therapy:
Chemotherapy (chemo) uses drugs that are injected through your veins or taken by mouth to kill cancer cells. It enters your blood and is effective for killing cells anywhere in your body. There are several drugs used for chemo and they can be combined. Chemo is often given in cycles. The length of the cycle and the schedule or frequency of chemotherapy varies depending on the drug used and where cancer is located.
Different kinds of surgery are used to treat cervical cancer. Some of the most common kinds of surgery for cervical cancer include:
In its earliest stages, the disease is curable by removing the cancerous tissue. In other cases, your provider may perform a simple hysterectomy or a radical hysterectomy.
Some people may have a combination of treatments. Your provider may use radiation or chemotherapy to treat cancer that has spread or come back (recurred). Sometimes your provider will use radiation and chemotherapy before or after surgery.
Targeted drug treatment destroys specific cancer cells without damaging healthy cells. It works by targeting proteins that control how cancer cells grow and spread. As scientists learn more about cancer cells, they're able to design better-targeted treatments that destroy these proteins.
Immunotherapy uses medicine to stimulate your immune system to recognize and destroy cancer cells. Cancer cells can also avoid being attacked by your immune system by sending off a signal. Immunotherapy helps to target these signals so the cancer cells can't trick your body into thinking it's a healthy cell.
Clinical trials are another treatment option. They're controlled research studies to test new treatments for cancer. Talk to your oncologist if you'd like to participate in a clinical trial.
Some people use alternative treatments like diet, herbs, acupuncture and other methods to supplement their cancer treatment. Talk to your healthcare provider about alternative methods that claim to relieve cancer symptoms. Some may help, but others could be harmful.
In many cases, cervical cancer can be linked with known risk factors for the disease. Some risk factors can be avoided, while others cannot. Some risk factors within your control are:
Some risk factors you can't change are:
There are some things you can do to prevent cervical cancer. Receiving regular gynecological exams and getting Pap tests are the most important steps to take toward preventing cervical cancer. Other things you can do are:
Most people should have regular cervical cancer screenings. Screenings include Pap tests, testing for HPV or a combination of both tests.
These are the cervical screening cancer guidelines:
Those with certain risk factors such as DES exposure before birth, HIV infection or a weakened immune system will follow a different schedule.
The HPV vaccine is approved for children and adults ages 9 to 45 and protects against the development of cervical cancer. The vaccine works by triggering your body's immune system to attack certain human papillomavirus (HPV) types, which have been linked to many cases of cervical cancer. It is best to get the vaccine before the start of sexual activity. The vaccine is given in a series. The number of shots you need varies depending on the age you are at your first dose. Check with your healthcare provider to see if you're eligible for the vaccine.
In people with cervical cancer that's caught at the earliest stage, the five-year relative survival rate is over 90%. Almost half of all cervical cancers are diagnosed at an early stage. The five-year survival rate is 58% if the cancer has spread to other tissues or organs.
It's still possible to get pregnant if your cervical cancer was treated. However, certain treatment methods can impact your ability to get pregnant. Talk to your healthcare provider about the treatments for cervical cancer and your desire to become pregnant. They should be able to discuss the risks and side effects cancer treatment could have on fertility.
Yes, cervical cancer can impact your sex life. There are physical and emotional changes people experience during and after treatment for cervical cancer. Certain physical changes like having your uterus or ovaries removed or vaginal dryness can affect sex. Other times it's the emotional side effects of cancer treatment that leave a person feeling less desirable or anxious. It's normal to feel nervous about having sex after cervical cancer. Talk to your healthcare provider about how you're feeling so they can recommend how to best treat you.
No, there is not a cure for cervical cancer. However, it's a highly treatable cancer, especially if it's detected early.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Being diagnosed with cancer is both shocking and scary. Discuss any of your questions and concerns with your healthcare team to make sure you understand your diagnosis and treatment plan. Having friends and family to support you during this time may help you cope. Early detection of irregular cells on your cervix is critical to identifying and treating this terrible disease. You can take steps to reduce your risk of getting cervical cancer by scheduling regular gynecological screenings and practicing safe sex.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 02/17/2022.
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