What is cervical cancer?

Understanding Cervical Cancer

Cancer that occurs in the cells of the cervix is referred to as cervical cancer. Your cervix is the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. Over 12,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year, and over 4,000 women will die from this disease annually in the United States.

When detected at an early stage, the five year survival rate for cervical cancer is 91%. However, if the cancer has spread to another part of the body, your five year survival rate drops to below 20%.

Cervical Cancer Symptoms

Most cases of cervical cancer in the early stages do not produce any symptoms. This is why it is important to get regular Pap tests with your gynecologist, as they can detect precancerous conditions of the cervix before symptoms begin. Signs and symptoms of more advanced cervical cancer can include:

  • Pelvic pain
  • Pain during intercourse
  • Vaginal bleeding after intercourse, between periods, or after menopause
  • Watery, bloody vaginal discharge

If you are experiencing any unusual symptoms, make an appointment with your doctor immediately.

Cervical Cancer Causes

Although the exact cause of cervical cancer is unclear, HPV (human papillomavirus) certainly plays a role. There are many different strains of HPV, but only certain strains are responsible for the condition. For some reason, these strains of HPV play a hand in causing healthy cells in the cervix to develop genetic mutations that cause them to turn into abnormal, rapidly multiplying cells.

Depending on the type of cell in the cervix that develops abnormalities, different forms of cervical cancer can arise. The primary strains of cervical cancer are squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma. The most common type is squamous cell carcinoma, which begins in the thin, flat cells that line the outer part of the cervix. Less common, adenocarcinoma begins in the column-shaped glandular cells that line the cervical canal.

Cervical Cancer Treatments

Depending on the type and stage of your cervical cancer, as well as your overall health and personal preference, treatment for this disease will vary. The most common treatments include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, or a combination of the three.

Cervical cancer that is diagnosed in the early stages is typically treated with surgery to completely remove the uterus, also known as a hysterectomy. Although this will cure early-stage cervical cancer and prevent it from recurring, it will also prevent you from ever being able to get pregnant again. If you have early stage cervical cancer without lymph node involvement, you may be eligible for surgery that preserves the possibility of becoming pregnant.

Often, before or after surgery, radiation or chemotherapy may be used to shrink a tumor or to kill any remaining cells. Radiation can be given externally, internally, or both. Chemotherapy is given intravenously to kill cancer cells. For advanced cervical cancer that cannot be cured, higher doses of chemotherapy may be given to prevent symptoms from worsening. 

Last Updated: January 24, 2017