Cervical Cancer: Overview
What is cervical cancer?
Cancer is made of changed cells that grow out of control. The
changed (abnormal) cells often grow to form a lump or mass called a tumor. Cancer
cells can also grow into (invade) nearby areas. And they can spread to other parts
of the body. This is called metastasis.
Cervical cancer is cancer that starts in the cervix. The cervix is
the lower end of the womb (uterus). It connects the uterus to the vagina. Most
cervical cancers start with changes in the squamous cells on the surface of the
cervix. Squamous cells are the cells that make up most of the skin and other
surfaces of the body. These cancers are called squamous cell carcinomas.
Who is at risk for cervical cancer?
A risk factor is anything that may increase your chance of having
a disease. The exact cause of someone’s cancer may not be known. But risk factors
can make it more likely for a person to have cancer. Some risk factors may not be in
your control. But others may be things you can change.
The risk factors for cervical cancer include:
HPV (human papillomavirus) infection
Sex at a young age or with multiple partners
Infection with HIV, or a weak immune system
Long-term use of birth control pills
Three or more full-term pregnancies
First full-term pregnancy before age 17
No regular Pap tests
Personal or family history of cervical cancer
Past chlamydia infection
Your mother took the medicine DES (diethylstilbestrol) while
pregnant with you
Talk with your healthcare provider about your risk factors for
cervical cancer and what you can do about them.
Can cervical cancer be prevented?
Cervical cancer most often starts with precancer cell changes. You
can take steps to help prevent these changes that lead to cervical cancer. To help
lower your risk:
Don’t get infected with HPV.
Get the HPV vaccine, if recommended.
Use condoms every time you have sex, from start to
Stay at a healthy weight.
Regular cervical cancer screening is a proven way to prevent this
Are there screening tests for cervical cancer?
Screening means checking for a health problem before a person
has symptoms. Screening can sometimes find certain cancers early, when they’re
small and before they have spread. Cervical cancer screening with a Pap test can
also find cervical cell changes before they become cancer. Treating these
changes can keep cancer from ever starting.
The Pap test can find cervical cancer early or cervical
precancers, and the HPV test can identify infection with one of the HPV types
linked to cervical cancer.
Regular testing with a Pap test, with or without an HPV
testing helps prevent cervical cancer. Talk with your healthcare provider about
the cervical cancer screening schedule that’s best for you.
What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?
Women with precancer cells and early cancers on their cervix
rarely have symptoms. Symptoms tend to start when the cancer cells grow and invade
the deeper parts of the cervix or other pelvic organs.
Symptoms of cervical cancer include:
Abnormal vaginal bleeding, such as between your periods or
Unusual vaginal discharge that’s watery or bloody
Pain during sex Pain in the pelvis or low back
Many of these may be caused by other health problems. But it’s
important to see your healthcare provider if you have these symptoms. Only a
healthcare provider can tell if you have cancer.
How is cervical cancer diagnosed?
Cervical cancer is found when doing a routine Pap test. Your
healthcare provider will ask you about your health history, symptoms, risk factors,
and family history of disease. Your provider will do a physical exam and a pelvic
You may also have one or more of these tests:
Pap and HPV tests
A biopsy is the only way to confirm cancer. Small pieces of tissue
are taken from the cervix and checked for cancer cells.
After a diagnosis of cervical cancer, you’ll likely need other
tests. These help your healthcare providers learn more about the cancer. They can
help determine the stage of the cancer. The stage is how much and how far the cancer
has spread (metastasized) in your body. It’s one of the most important things to
know when deciding how to treat the cancer.
Once your cancer is staged, your healthcare provider will talk
with you about what the stage means for your treatment. Be sure to ask your
healthcare provider to explain the stage of your cancer to you in a way you can
How is cervical cancer treated?
Your treatment choices depend on the type of cervical cancer you
have, test results, and the stage of the cancer. You also may need to think about
whether you want to be able to have kids. The goal of treatment may be to cure you,
control the cancer, or to help ease problems caused by cancer. Talk with your
healthcare team about your treatment choices, the goals of treatment, and what the
risks and side effects may be.
Types of treatment for cancer are either local or systemic. Local
treatments remove, destroy, or control cancer cells in one area. Surgery and
radiation are local treatments. Systemic treatment is used to destroy or control
cancer cells that may have traveled around your body. When taken by pill or
injection, chemotherapy and targeted therapy are systemic treatments. You may have
just one treatment or a combination of treatments.
Cervical cancer may be treated with:
Talk with your healthcare providers about your treatment options.
Make a list of questions. Think about the benefits and possible side effects of each
option. Some treatments may affect your ability to have children in the future. Talk
about your concerns with your healthcare provider before making a decision.
What are treatment side effects?
Cancer treatment such as chemotherapy and radiation can damage
normal cells. This can cause side effects like hair loss, mouth sores, and
Talk with your healthcare provider about side effects you might
have and ways to manage them. There may be things you can do and medicines you can
take to help prevent or control side effects.
Coping with cervical cancer
Many people feel worried, depressed, and stressed when dealing
with cancer. Getting treatment for cancer can be tough on your mind and body. Keep
talking with your healthcare team about any problems or concerns you have. Work
together to ease the effect of cancer and its symptoms on your daily life.
Here are tips:
Talk with your family or friends.
Ask your healthcare team or social worker for help.
Speak with a counselor.
Talk with a spiritual advisor, such as a minister or
Ask your healthcare team about medicines for depression or
Keep socially active.
Join a cancer support group.
Cancer treatment is also hard on the body. To help yourself stay
healthier, try to:
Eat a healthy diet, with a focus on high-protein foods.
Drink plenty of water, fruit juices, and other liquids.
Keep physically active.
Rest as much as needed.
Talk with your healthcare team about ways to manage
treatment side effects.
Take your medicines as directed by your team.
When should I call my healthcare provider?
Your healthcare provider will talk with you about when to call.
You may be told to call if you have any of the below:
New symptoms or symptoms that get worse
Signs of an infection, such as a fever
Side effects of treatment that affect your daily function or
don’t get better with treatment
Ask your healthcare provider what signs to watch for and when to
call. Know how to get help after office hours and on weekends and holidays.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare
Know the reason for your visit and what you want to
Before your visit, write down questions you want
Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and
remember what your provider tells you.
At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and
any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions
your provider gives you.
Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how
it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the
results could mean.
Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have
the test or procedure.
If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date,
time, and purpose for that visit.
Know how you can contact your provider if you have