Cervical cancer is cancer that starts in the cervix. The cervix is the lower part of the uterus (womb) that opens at the top of the vagina.
Cervical cancer starts in the cells on the surface of the cervix. There are 2 types of cells on the surface of the cervix, squamous and columnar. Most cervical cancers are from squamous cells.
Cervical cancer usually develops slowly. It starts as a precancerous condition called dysplasia. This condition can be detected by a Pap smear and is 100% treatable. It can take years for dysplasia to develop into cervical cancer. Most women who are diagnosed with cervical cancer today have not had regular Pap smears, or they have not followed up on abnormal Pap smear results.
Almost all cervical cancers are caused by HPV (human papillomavirus). HPV is a common virus that is spread through sexual intercourse. There are many different types (strains) of HPV. Some strains lead to cervical cancer. Other strains can cause genital warts. Others do not cause any problems at all.
Cervical Cancer Risk Factors
A woman's sexual habits and patterns can increase her risk of developing cervical cancer. Risky sexual practices include:
- Having sex at an early age
- Having multiple sexual partners
- Having a partner or many partners who take part in high-risk sexual activities
Other risk factors for cervical cancer include:
- Not getting the HPV vaccine
- Being economically disadvantaged
- Having a mother who took the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES) during pregnancy in the early 1960s to prevent miscarriage
- Having a weakened immune system
Cervical Cancer Symptoms
Most of the time, early cervical cancer has no symptoms. Symptoms that may occur include:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding between periods, after intercourse, or after menopause
- Vaginal discharge that does not stop, and may be pale, watery, pink, brown, bloody, or foul-smelling
- Periods that become heavier and last longer than usual
Cervical cancer may spread to the bladder, intestines, lungs, and liver. Often, there are no problems until the cancer is advanced and has spread. Symptoms of advanced cervical cancer may include:
- Back pain
- Bone pain or fractures
- Leaking of urine or feces from the vagina
- Leg pain
- Loss of appetite
- Pelvic pain
- Single swollen leg
- Weight loss
Cervical Cancer Diagnosis
Precancerous changes of the cervix and cervical cancer cannot be seen with the naked eye. Special tests and tools are needed to spot such conditions:
- A Pap smear screens for precancers and cancer, but does not make a final diagnosis.
- The human papillomavirus (HPV) DNA test may be done along with a Pap test. Or it may be used after a woman has had an abnormal Pap test result. It may also be used as the first test.
- If abnormal changes are found, the cervix is usually examined under magnification. This procedure is called colposcopy. Pieces of tissue are removed (biopsied) during this procedure. This tissue is then sent to a lab for examination.
- A procedure called a cone biopsy may also be done.
If cervical cancer is diagnosed, the health care provider will order more tests. These help determine how far the cancer has spread. This is called staging. Tests may include:
- Chest x-ray
- CT scan of the pelvis
- Intravenous pyelogram (IVP)
- MRI of the pelvis
Cervical Cancer Treatment
If you have early stage cervical cancer, our team of gynecologic oncologists will probably recommend surgery to remove the cervix, uterus, lymph nodes and other tissues to remove the cancer. This surgery is proven as the most effective approach for treating early stage cervical cancer.
If you have advanced cervical cancer, our doctors will recommend a combination of chemotherapy and radiation. However, if your disease is recurrent and metastatic, which means it came back and spread beyond the cervix, we offer protocols of systemic chemotherapy. Systemic chemotherapy is offered through an IV at regular intervals to stop cancer growth in your body. Your gynecologic oncologist will design and administer your chemotherapy treatments.