Get answers to your GYN Cancer questions.
Cancer - cervix
Cervical cancer is cancer that starts in the cervix, the lower part of the uterus (womb) that opens at the top of the vagina.
Worldwide, cervical cancer is the third most common type of cancer in women. It is much less common in the United States because of the routine use of Pap smears.
Cervical cancers start in the cells on the surface of the cervix. There are two types of cells on the cervix's surface: squamous and columnar. Most cervical cancers are from squamous cells.
Cervical cancer usually develops very slowly. It starts as a precancerous condition called dysplasia. This precancerous condition can be detected by a Pap smear and is 100% treatable. That is why it is so important for women to get regular Pap smears. Most women who are diagnosed with cervical cancer today have not had regular Pap smears or they have not followed up on abnormal Pap smear results.
Undetected precancerous changes can develop into cervical cancer and spread to the bladder, intestines, lungs, and liver. It can take years for precancerous changes to turn into cervical cancer. Patients with cervical cancer do not usually have problems until the cancer is advanced and has spread.
Almost all cervical cancers are caused by HPV (human papilloma virus). HPV is a common virus that is spread through sexual intercourse. There are many different types of HPV. Some strains lead to cervical cancer. (Other strains may cause genital warts, while others do not cause any problems at all.)
Risk factors for cervical cancer include:
Most of the time, early cervical cancer has no symptoms. Symptoms that may occur can include:
Symptoms of advanced cervical cancer may include:
Precancerous changes of the cervix and cervical cancer cannot be seen with the naked eye. Special tests and tools are needed to spot such conditions.
Other tests may include:
If the woman is diagnosed with cervical cancer, the health care provider will order more tests to determine how far the cancer has spread. This is called staging. Tests may include:
Treatment of cervical cancer depends on:
Early cervical cancer can be cured by removing or destroying the precancerous or cancerous tissue. There are various surgical ways to do this without removing the uterus or damaging the cervix, so that a woman can still have children in the future.
Types of surgery for early cervical cancer include:
A hysterectomy (removal of the uterus but not the ovaries) is not often performed for cervical cancer that has not spread. It may be done in women who have repeated LEEP procedures.
Treatment for more advanced cervical cancer may include:
Radiation may be used to treat cancer that has spread beyond the pelvis, or cancer that has returned. Radiation therapy is either external or internal.
Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer. Some of the drugs used for cervical cancer chemotherapy include 5-FU, cisplatin, carboplatin, ifosfamide, paclitaxel, and cyclophosphamide. Sometimes radiation and chemotherapy are used before or after surgery.
National Cervical Cancer Coalition -
Many factors influence the outcome of cervical cancer. These include:
Pre-cancerous conditions are completely curable when followed up and treated properly. The chance of being alive in 5 years (5-year survival rate) for cancer that has spread to the inside of the cervix walls but not outside the cervix area is 92%.
The 5-year survival rate falls steadily as the cancer spreads into other areas.
Call your health care provider if you:
A vaccine to prevent cervical cancer is now available. In June 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the vaccine called Gardasil, which prevents infection against the two types of HPV responsible for most cervical cancer cases.
Studies have shown that the vaccine appears to prevent early-stage cervical cancer and precancerous lesions. Gardasil is the first approved vaccine targeted specifically to prevent any type of cancer.
Practicing safe sex (using condoms) also reduces your risk of HPV and other sexually transmitted diseases. HPV infection causes genital warts. These may be barely visible or several inches wide. If a woman sees warts on her partner's genitals, she should avoid intercourse with that person.
To further reduce the risk of cervical cancer, women should limit their number of sexual partners and avoid partners who participate in high-risk sexual activities.
Getting regular Pap smears can help detect precancerous changes, which can be treated before they turn into cervical cancer. Pap smears effectively spot such changes, but they must be done regularly. Annual pelvic examinations, including a pap smear, should start when a woman becomes sexually active, or by the age of 20 in a nonsexually active woman.
See also: Physical exam frequency
If you smoke, quit. Cigarette smoking is associated with an increased risk of cervical cancer.
Kahn JA. HPV vaccination for the prevention of cervical intraepithelial neoplasia. N Engl J Med. 2009 Jul 16;361(3):271-8.
Noller KL. Intraepithelial neoplasia of the lower genital tract (cervix, vulva): Etiology, screening, diagnostic techniques, management. In: Katz VL, Lentz GM, Lobo RA, Gershenson DM, eds. Comprehensive Gynecology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2007:chap 28.
National Comprehensive Cancer Network. NCCN Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Cervical Cancer Screening. v.1.2011.
Smith RA, Cokkinides V, Brooks D, Saslow D, Brawley OW. Cancer screening in the United States, 2010: a review of current American Cancer Society guidelines and issues in cancer screening. CA Cancer J Clin. 2010;60:99-119.
NCCN Clinical Practical Guidelines in Oncology: Cervical cancer. V.1.2010. National Comprehensive Cancer Network, Inc. Available at
© 2011 University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC). All rights reserved.
UMMC is a member of the University of Maryland Medical System,
22 S. Greene Street, Baltimore, MD 21201. TDD: 1-800-735-2258 or 1.866.408.6885