Worldwide, cervical cancer is the third most common type of cancer in women. Luckily, it's much less common in the United States due to women receiving recommended routine Pap smears, the test designed to find cervical cancer sometimes even before abnormal cells turn to cancer.
Cervical cancer starts in the cells on the surface of the cervix, the lower portion of the uterus. There are two types of cells on the surface of the cervix, squamous and columnar. Most cervical cancers come from these squamous cells.
The cancer usually starts very slowly as a condition called dysplasia. This precancerous condition can be detected by Pap smear and is 100% treatable. Undetected, precancerous changes can develop into cervical cancer and spread to the bladder, intestines, lungs, and liver. It can take years for these precancerous changes to turn into cervical cancer. However, patients with cervical cancer do not usually have problems until the cancer is advanced and has spread.
Most of the time, early cervical cancer has no symptoms. Symptoms of advanced cancer may include back pain, bone fractures, fatigue, heavy vaginal bleeding, urine leakage, leg pain, loss of appetite, and pelvic pain.
If after having a Pap smear, the doctor finds abnormal changes on the cervix, a colposcopy can be ordered. Using a light and a low-powered microscope, the doctor will view the cervix under magnification. The doctor may remove pieces of tissue, called a biopsy, and send the sample to a laboratory for testing.
If the woman is diagnosed with cervical cancer, the doctor will order more tests to determine how far the cancer has spread. This is called Staging. Treatment will depend on the stage of the cancer, the size and shape of the tumor, the woman's age and general health, and her desire to have children in the future.
Early cervical cancer can be treated with surgery just to remove abnormal tissue, freeze abnormal cells, or burn abnormal tissue. Treatment for more advanced cervical cancer may include radical hysterectomy, removal of the uterus and much of the surrounding tissue, including lymph nodes and the upper part of the vagina. Radiation may be used to treat cancer that has spread beyond the pelvis, or if cancer returns. The woman may also have chemotherapy to kill cancer cells.
Almost all cervical cancers are caused by human papilloma virus, or HPV. This common virus is spread through sexual intercourse. HPV vaccines can prevent infection against the two types of HPV responsible for about 70% of cervical cancer. Practicing safe sex also reduces the risk of getting HPV.
But, keep in mind most women diagnosed with cervical cancer have not had their regular Pap smears. Because Pap smears can find precancerous growths that are 100% treatable, it's very important for women to get Pap smears at regular intervals.
Review Date: 2/19/2016
Reviewed By: Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.