About cervical cancer (cancer of the cervix)

What is cervical cancer (cancer of the cervix)?

Cervical cancer happens when cells change in women’s cervix, which connects the uterus and vagina. This cancer can affect the deeper tissues of their cervix and may spread to other parts of their body (metastasize), often the lungs, liver, bladder, vagina, and rectum.

Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by infection with human papillomavirus (HPV), which is preventable with a vaccine. 

Cervical cancer grows slowly, so there’s usually time to find and treat it before it causes serious problems. It kills fewer and fewer women each year, thanks to improved screening through Pap tests.

Women 35 to 44 years old are most likely to get it. More than 15% of new cases are in women over age 65, however, especially those who haven’t been getting regular screenings.

What are the symptoms for cervical cancer (cancer of the cervix)?

You might not notice symptoms of cervical cancer until it’s far along. They may include:

  • Pain when you have sex
  • Unusual vaginal bleeding, such as after sex, between periods, after menopause, or after a pelvic exam
  • Unusual vaginal discharge

After it has spread, the cancer can cause:

  • Pelvic pain
  • Trouble peeing
  • Swollen legs
  • Kidney failure
  • Bone pain
  • Weight loss and lack of appetite
  • Fatigue

What are the causes for cervical cancer (cancer of the cervix)?

Where cervical cancer begins 

Two types of cells line the surface of the cervix, and both can become cancerous. One type (glandular cells) has a column-shaped appearance. The other type (squamous cells) is thin and flat. The boundary between the two types of cells is where cervical cancer most commonly occurs.

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.

Types of cervical cancer

The type of cervical cancer that you have helps determine your prognosis and treatment. The main types of cervical cancer are:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma. This type of cervical cancer 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. This type of cervical cancer begins in the column-shaped glandular cells that line the cervical canal.

Sometimes, both types of cells are involved in cervical cancer. Very rarely, cancer occurs in other cells in the cervix.

What are the treatments for cervical cancer (cancer of the cervix)?

Regular pelvic exams and Pap smears are important for every woman but especially those who’ve had precancerous cells or cervical cancer. After treatment, you need to have regular follow-up appointments.

What are the risk factors for cervical cancer (cancer of the cervix)?

You might be at higher risk of cervical cancer if you:

  • Started having sex before age 16 or within a year of starting your period
  • Have multiple sexual partners
  • Take birth control pills, especially for longer than 5 years
  • Smoke cigarettes
  • Have a weakened immune system
  • Have a sexually transmitted disease (STD)

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