What is Cervical Cancer?
Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that occurs in the cells of the cervix — the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. Various strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection, play a role in causing most cervical cancer.
When exposed to HPV, the body’s immune system typically prevents the virus from doing harm. In a small percentage of people, however, the virus survives for years, contributing to the process that causes some cervical cells to become cancer cells.
There are two main types of cervical cancer:
- Squamous cell carcinoma is the type of cervical cancer that begins in the thin, flat cells (squamous cells) lining the outer part of the cervix, which projects into the vagina. Most cervical cancers are squamous cell carcinomas.
- Adenocarcinoma is the type of cervical cancer that begins in the column-shaped glandular cells that line the cervical canal.
What are the symptoms of Cervical Cancer?
Early-stage cervical cancer generally produces no signs or symptoms.
Signs and symptoms of more-advanced cervical cancer include:
- Vaginal bleeding after intercourse, between periods or after menopause
- Watery, bloody vaginal discharge that may be heavy and have a foul odor
- Pelvic pain or pain during intercourse
What causes Cervical Cancer?
Cervical cancer begins when healthy cells in the cervix develop changes (mutations) in their DNA. A cell’s DNA contains the instructions that tell a cell what to do.
Healthy cells grow and multiply at a set rate, eventually dying at a set time. The mutations tell the cells to grow and multiply out of control, and they don’t die. The accumulating abnormal cells form a mass (tumor). Cancer cells invade nearby tissues and can break off from a tumor to spread (metastasize) elsewhere in the body.
It isn’t clear what causes cervical cancer, but it’s certain that HPV plays a role. HPV is very common, and most people with the virus never develop cancer. This means other factors — such as your environment or your lifestyle choices — also determine whether you’ll develop cervical cancer.
How is Cervical Cancer diagnosed?
If cervical cancer is suspected, a doctor is likely to start with a thorough examination of the cervix. A special magnifying instrument (colposcope) is used to check for abnormal cells.
During the colposcopic examination, the doctor is likely to take a sample of cervical cells (biopsy) for laboratory testing. To obtain tissue, the doctor may use:
- Punch biopsy, which involves using a sharp tool to pinch off small samples of cervical tissue.
- Endocervical curettage, which uses a small, spoon-shaped instrument (curet) or a thin brush to scrape a tissue sample from the cervix.
If the results of the punch biopsy or endocervical curettage requires more attention, the doctor may perform one of the following tests:
- Electrical wire loop, which uses a thin, low-voltage electrified wire to obtain a small tissue sample. Generally this is done under local anesthesia in the office.
- Cone biopsy (conization), which is a procedure that allows the doctor to obtain deeper layers of cervical cells for laboratory testing. A cone biopsy may be done in a hospital under general anesthesia.
What are the treatments for Cervical Cancer?
Treatment for cervical cancer depends on several factors, such as the stage of the cancer, other health problems you may have and your preferences. Surgery, radiation, chemotherapy or a combination of the three may be used.