Cervical cancer starts in the cervix, the lower part of the uterus (womb). Typically, women are most at risk for cervical cancer in their 30s and 70s. Treatment of cervical cancer may include surgery, chemotherapy or radiation.
Causes of Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer is the third most common type of cancer in women worldwide. It is much less common in the U.S. because of the routine use of Pap smears (cervical cytology) and HPV testing. Pap tests take cells from the cervix to be examined for the presence of precancerous or cancerous cells. HPV testing assesses for the presence of the virus in the cells of the cervix.
Cervical cancers start in the surface cells of the cervix. It begins as a pre-cancerous condition or abnormal growth of cells called dysplasia. This precancerous condition can be detected by Pap smears and can be treated. That is why it is critical for women to get regular Pap smears and HPV testing. With regular cervical cancer screening and follow-up, cervical cancer is usually preventable and treatable. Undetected, pre-cancerous changes can develop into cervical cancer and spread throughout the body.
HPV and Cervical Cancer
Almost all cervical cancers are caused by HPV (Human Papilloma Virus). HPV is a common virus that is spread through human contact. There are many different types of HPV. Some strains lead to cervical cancer, others may cause genital warts, and others do not cause any problems at all.
Other risk factors for cervical cancer include:
- Having sex at an early age
- Multiple sexual partners
- Women whose mothers took the drug DES (diethylstilbestrol) during pregnancy in the early 1960s to prevent miscarriage
- Weakened immune system
Cervical Cancer Diagnosis
Regular cervical cancer screening does not confirm a diagnosis of cervical cancer. If abnormal cells are seen, the cervix is examined using a microscope. This is called colposcopy. A biopsy may be taken during this procedure.
Other tests may include:
- Endocervical Curettage (ECC)- to examine the cervical canal
- LEEP(loop electrosurgical excision procedure) - uses cautery to remove abnormal cervical tissue
- Cervical Cone Biopsy- procedure in the operating room to remove a portion of the cervix
If a diagnosis of cervical cancer is confirmed, the health care provider may order more tests to find out if the cancer has spread. This is called staging.
Tests may include:
- PET Scan
- CT (computed tomography) scanMRI (magnetic resonance imaging)
- Cystoscopy (examination of the bladder and urethra)
- Proctoscopy (examination of the rectum)
Many factors influence the outcome of cervical cancer. These include:
- Whether the cancer has spread (stage of the disease)
- The age and general physical condition of the woman
Pre-cancerous conditions are curable with proper treatment and follow-up. The chance of being alive in five years (five-year survival rate) if the cancer has not spread outside the cervix, is about 92 percent. However, the five-year survival rate falls steadily if the cancer spreads into other areas.