Cervical Cancer

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What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is a common malignant tumor of the female reproductive system, specifically the cervix of the uterus. Cervical cancer is the third most common type of cancer in women in the world. However, the routine use of Pap smear screening has made it far less common in the United States, according to the National Institutes of Health. (Source: NIH).

The cervix is the organ that provides an opening between the vagina and the uterus. Normally, cells in a woman’s cervix that are old or damaged will stop dividing and die. These cells are replaced by healthy young cells. The earliest, precancerous stage of cervical cancer occurs when old or damaged cells continue to divide in the superficial layer of the cervix. This is called cervical dysplasia. When cervical dysplasia is not treated, it can grow and spread into the deeper tissues of the cervix, developing into cervical cancer.

Regular Pap smear screening tests can detect cervical dysplasia long before it develops into cervical cancer. Cervical dysplasia is 100% treatable. Once cervical cancer has developed, the prognosis varies depending on the cancer’s stage of advancement; your age, general health status, and medical history; and other factors.

Cervical cancer can lead to life-threatening complications and be fatal, especially if it goes undetected and untreated. Seeking regular medical care offers the best chances of discovering cervical cancer in its earliest, most curable stage. If you have cervical cancer, following your treatment plan may help reduce your risk of serious complications. The good news is that if diagnosed and treated in an early stage of development, cervical cancer is curable in many cases.

What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer generally produces no symptoms in its earliest stages. There are also frequently no symptoms of cervical dysplasia, the precancerous condition that develops into cervical cancer, or human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, which causes most cases of cervical dysplasia and cervical cancer.

When symptoms of cervical cancer occur, they may indicate that the cancer has progressed to more advanced stages. Symptoms include:

What causes cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is most often caused by an infection of human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV, which can also cause genital warts, is spread through sexual contact, most often through vaginal and anal sex. Having vaginal sex with a person who has HPV can cause cervical dysplasia, a precancerous condition. If undetected and untreated, cervical dysplasia can develop into cervical cancer.

What are the risk factors for cervical cancer?

A number of factors may increase your chances of developing cervical cancer. Not all people with risk factors will develop cervical cancer, and some people who do not have risk factors will develop cervical cancer.

Risk factors include:

  • Certain medications, such as DES or drugs that suppress the immune system
  • Having HIV/AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases
  • Having multiple sex partners
  • Having sex at a young age
  • Having sex with a partner who has had multiple sex partners or has been exposed to HPV
  • Having unprotected sex
  • Smoking

Reducing your risk of cervical cancer

You can lower your risk of cervical cancer by

  • Abstaining from sex
  • Getting vaccinated with Gardasil 9 provides protection from the strains of HPV that cause most cervical cancers. However, these vaccines do not prevent all cases of cervical cancer, and routine Pap smears are still recommended for females who have been vaccinated.
  • Having regular Pap smear screening tests within three years of becoming sexually active or no later than age 21.
  • Having regular HPV tests. Cervical cancer screening guidelines for women 30 years and older include the HPV test every five years with or without a Pap smear, or the Pap smear alone every three years. Women 21 to 29 should have the Pap smear, and women older than 65 may not need testing if prior tests have been negative.
  • Having sex only within a monogamous relationship, in which neither partner is infected with a sexually transmitted disease or has been exposed to HPV. It is important to understand that HPV, the virus that causes most cases of cervical cancer, can be spread through sexual contact even when there are no symptoms of infection.
  • Quitting smoking
  • Using a new condom for each sex act

How is cervical cancer treated?

Treatment of cervical cancer begins with seeking regular medical care throughout your life. Regular medical care allows your health care professional to best evaluate your risks of developing cervical cancer, perform routine Pap smear screening, and promptly order further diagnostic testing as needed. These measures greatly increase the chances of detecting cervical cancer in its earliest, most curable stage. This stage is called cervical dysplasia, a precancerous condition that is 100% treatable.

The goal of cervical cancer treatment is to permanently cure the cancer or to bring about a complete remission of the disease. Remission means that there is no longer any sign of the disease in the body, although it may recur or relapse later. Cervical cancer treatment plans use a multifaceted approach and are individualized to the type of cancer and stage of advancement; your age, medical history, and coexisting diseases or conditions; and other factors.

Treatment of cervical cancer or cervical dysplasia may include some combination of the following:

  • Chemotherapy

  • Cone biopsy to surgically remove a cone-shaped section of the cervix where abnormal cells are located

  • Cryosurgery to kill abnormal cervical cells by freezing them

  • Dietary counseling to help people with cancer maintain their strength and nutritional status

  • Hysterectomy to remove the uterus and cervix

  • Laser surgery to kill abnormal cervical cells with a light beam

  • LEEP procedure to eliminate abnormal cervical cells using electrical current

  • Pain medications

  • Palliative care to improve the overall quality of life for families and patients with serious diseases

  • Participation in a clinical trial to test promising new therapies and treatments for cervical cancer

  • Physical therapy to help strengthen the body, increase alertness, reduce fatigue, and improve functional ability during and after cancer treatment

  • Radiation therapy

  • Radical trachelectomy to remove the cervix and nearby lymph nodes

Complementary treatments

Some complementary treatments may help some women to better deal with cervical cancer and its treatments. These treatments, sometimes referred to as alternative therapies, are used in conjunction with traditional medical treatments. Complementary treatments are not meant to substitute for traditional medical care. Be sure to notify your doctor if you are consuming nutritional supplements or homeopathic (nonprescription) remedies as they may interact with the prescribed medical therapy.

Complementary treatments may include:

  • Acupuncture

  • Massage therapy

  • Nutritional dietary supplements, herbal remedies, tea beverages, and similar products

  • Yoga

Hospice care

In cases in which cervical cancer has progressed to an advanced stage and has become unresponsive to treatment, the goal of treatment shifts away from curing the disease and focuses on treating the person. The goal of hospice care is to help people in their last phases of an incurable disease to live as fully and comfortably as possible. Hospice care involves medically controlling pain and other symptoms while providing psychological and spiritual support as well as services to support the patient’s family.

What are the potential complications of cervical cancer?

Complications of cervical cancer are life threatening. Complications are caused by an abnormally rapid growth of old or damaged cells in the cervix that can spread to other organs, such as the lungs, bladder, liver and intestines. Over time, the spread of cancer interferes with organ function and vital body processes. Serious complications include:

  • Recurring cervical cancer after treatment

  • Infertility due to cervical cancer treatment

You can best treat cervical cancer and lower your risk or delay the development of complications by following the treatment plan that you and your health care team design specifically for you.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Sep 20
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Tierney LM Jr., Saint S, Whooley MA (Eds.) Current Essentials of Medicine (4th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011.
  2. Schiffman M, Castle PE, Jeronimo J, et al. Human papillomavirus and cervical cancer. Lancet 2007; 370:890.
  3. Screening for Cervical Cancer US Preventive Services Task Force Recommendation Statement. JAMA. 2018;320(7):674-686. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2697704
  4. Human Papilloma (HPV) Vaccines. National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/infectious-agents/hpv-vaccine-fact-sheet