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).
Infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV) is the main risk factor for cervical cancer, causing more than 90 percent of cervical cancers diagnosed in the Unites States. This virus is so common that it affects nearly 70 percent of sexually active women.
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.
Depending on the stage of your disease, your doctor may recommend treatment with surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or some combination of these. Your treatment will also vary based on whether the cancer is confined to the cervix.
You may also be eligible for a clinical trial exploring a new therapy.
There are three types of cervical cancer.
This type of cervical cancer is by far the most common — it’s accounts for about 70 percent of all cases. Squamous cell carcinomas cover the outer part of the cervix closest to the uterus.
This type of cervical cancer accounts for about 25 percent of all cases. Adenocarcinomas start in the mucus-producing gland cells that line the endocervix.
This cervical cancer — which has both squamous cell and adenocarcinoma cell types — is the rarest of the three types.
Cervical cancer presents a special challenge because you may not notice any signs or symptoms, especially when the condition is in its earliest stages. Because it can stay “hidden,” it’s important to start getting regular cervical cancer screening at age 21, regardless of how old you were when you first had sexual intercourse.
If you do have symptoms, they may include:
- pain or bleeding during or after sex, douching, or a pelvic examination
- pelvic pain
- unusual vaginal discharge
- blood or bleeding beyond your 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.