The cervix is the lower part of the uterus (womb) that extends into the upper end of the vagina. Most cervical cancers begin in an area called the transformation zone, where the inner part of the cervix closest to the uterus (the endocervix) meets the outer part of the cervix closest to the vagina (the ectocervix).
Cervical cancer usually grows slowly, over many years. Before actual cancer cells in the cervix develop, the tissues of the cervix undergo changes at the cellular level — called dysplasia, or precancers. At this early precancer stage, these dysplastic cells can often be removed and the condition cured with an office procedure.
At one time, cervical cancer was considered one of the most serious cancers for women. But thanks to effective screening with the vaginal Pap smear (also called a Pap test), which can detect cervical precancers and cancers early on, most of the more than 12,000 Americans diagnosed annually with this illness can be cured.
Types of Cervical Cancer
Squamous cell carcinomas account for 70 percent of cervical cancers. These thin, flat cells cover the outer part of the cervix closest to the uterus. Another 25 percent of cervical cancers begin in the mucus-producing gland cells that line the inner part of the cervix closest to the uterus. These are known as adenocarcinomas.
A small number of cases feature both squamous and adenocarcinoma cell types and are known as mixed, or adenosquamous, carcinomas.
Most women with cervical cancer, especially in its earliest stages, do not notice any symptoms — which is why it is so important that women see a doctor for regular cervical cancer screening starting at age 21.
When symptoms do occur, they may include:
- Pain or bleeding during or after intercourse or douching, or following a pelvic examination
- Pelvic pain
- Unusual discharge from the vagina
- Blood spots or light bleeding other than what a woman would expect from a normal menstrual period
Since other conditions can cause these symptoms as well, it is important to see your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms.