Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer is one of the most common cancers to affect women. It develops in the cervix, which is the lower, narrow part of the uterus that forms the canal that opens into the vagina. Cervical cancer is often caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is passed from person to person through genital contact, usually during vaginal or anal sex. Most women infected with HPV will not get cervical cancer, and treatment is usually successful when the disease is discovered in its early stages.

Types of Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancers are classified by cell type. The two main types are squamous cell carcinoma, which forms in the squamous cells on the surface of the cervix, and adenocarcinoma, which forms in the mucous-producing glands. Squamous cell carcinoma is by far the most common cervical cancer, accounting for approximately 80 percent to 90 percent of cases.

Risks for Cervical Cancer

The greatest risk for getting cervical cancer is to become infected with HPV, which is found in most women who are diagnosed with cervical cancer. Risk factors for getting HPV may include:

  • Starting to have sex early, before age 18
  • Having had many sexual partners
  • Being infected with a sexually transmitted infection (STI)
  • Having had a sex partner who had an STI

Other risk factors for cervical cancer may include:

  • Having an immune-system deficiency
  • Having genital herpes
  • Smoking
  • Exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES)

Symptoms of Cervical Cancer

Because cervical cancer is often asymptomatic, regular screening tests are essential. Screening for cervical cancer is recommended for all women 21 or older, or for those who will become sexually active within three years. Symptoms of cervical cancer may include:

  • Bleeding from the vagina that is not normal
  • An unexplained change in the menstrual cycle
  • Cervical bleeding, possibly during sex or insertion of a diaphragm
  • Pain during sex
  • Vaginal discharge tinged with blood
  • Bleeding after menopause
  • A family history of cervical cancer

Treatment of Cervical Cancer

Successful treatment of cervical cancer may depend on how early it is detected, which is why regular screenings are so important. Regular screenings should include a Pap test, which checks for abnormal cells in the cervix. The type of treatment usually depends on the stage of the disease, which includes the size and depth of the abnormal cells, and whether or how far they have spread. Cervical cancer treatment may include:

  • Surgery to remove the tumor
  • Biopsy
  • Cryosurgery
  • Hysterectomy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation

Prevention of Cervical Cancer

The best way to prevent cervical cancer is usually to prevent becoming infected with HPV. Steps that may help to reduce HPV infection include:

  • Not having first sexual intercourse until the late teens or older
  • Having a limited number of sex partners
  • Avoiding sexual intercourse with people who have had many partners
  • Avoiding sexual intercourse with people who have genital warts or other STI symptoms
  • Using condoms during vaginal or anal sex, which also helps protect against STIs
  • Getting vaccinated against HPV

At present, there are two vaccines that help to protect girls and young women against the types of HPV that cause most cervical cancers: the CERVARIX vaccine and the GARDASIL vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends three doses of vaccine for girls 11 or 12 years old. It also recommends three doses for girls/women 13 to 26 years old who were never vaccinated, or who received fewer than three doses.

Additional Resources