Cervical cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells
form in the tissues of the cervix.
The cervix is the lower,
narrow end of the uterus (the
hollow, pear-shaped organ where a fetus grows). The cervix leads from the uterus to
the vagina (birth canal).
Anatomy of the female reproductive system. The organs in the female reproductive system include the uterus, ovaries, fallopian tubes, cervix, and vagina. The uterus has a muscular outer layer called the myometrium and an inner lining called the endometrium.
Cervical cancer usually develops slowly over time. Before cancer
appears in the cervix, the cells of
the cervix go through changes known as dysplasia, in which cells that are not normal
begin to appear in the cervicaltissue. Later, cancer cells start to grow and
spread more deeply into the cervix and to surrounding areas.
Cervical cancer in children is rare. For more information, see the PDQ summary on Unusual Cancers of Childhood.
Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection is the major risk factor
for development of cervical cancer.
Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called
a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will
get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will
not get cancer. People who think they may be at risk should
discuss this with their doctor.
Infection of the cervix with human
papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common cause of cervical
cancer. Not all women with HPV infection, however, will develop cervical
cancer. Women who do not regularly have a Pap
smear to detect HPV or abnormal cells in the cervix are at
increased risk of cervical cancer.
Other possible risk factors include the following:
There are usually no noticeable signs of early cervical cancer
but it can be detected early with yearly check-ups.
Early cervical cancer may not cause noticeable signs or
symptoms. Women should have yearly
check-ups, including a Pap smear to check for abnormal cells in the cervix. The
prognosis (chance of recovery) is
better when the cancer is found early.
Possible signs of cervical cancer include vaginal bleeding and
These and other symptoms may be caused by cervical cancer. Other conditions may cause the same symptoms. A doctor should be consulted if any of the following problems
Tests that examine the cervix are used to detect (find) and
diagnose cervical cancer.
The following procedures may be used:
Pap smear: A procedure to collect cells from the surface of the cervix and vagina. A piece of cotton, a brush, or a small wooden stick is used to gently scrape cells from the cervix and vagina. The cells are viewed under a microscope to find out if they are abnormal. This procedure is also called a Pap test.
Pap smear. A speculum is inserted into the vagina to widen it. Then, a brush is inserted into the vagina to collect cells from the cervix. The cells are checked under a microscope for signs of disease.
Human papillomavirus (HPV) test: A laboratory test used to check DNA (genetic material) for certain types of HPV infection. Cells are collected from the cervix and checked to find out if an infection is caused by a type of human papillomavirus that is linked to cervical cancer. This test may be done if the results of a Pap smear show certain abnormal cervical cells. This test is also called the HPV DNA test.
Colposcopy: A procedure in which a colposcope (a lighted, magnifying instrument) is used to check the vagina and cervix for abnormal areas. Tissue samples may be taken using a curette (spoon-shaped instrument) and checked under a microscope for signs of disease.
Biopsy: If abnormal
cells are found in a Pap smear, the doctor may do a biopsy. A sample of tissue
is cut from the cervix and viewed under a microscope by a pathologist to check for signs of cancer. A biopsy that removes
only a small amount of tissue is usually done in the doctor’s office. A woman
may need to go to a hospital for a cervical cone
biopsy (removal of a larger, cone-shaped sample of cervical
Pelvic exam: An exam of the vagina, cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, and rectum. The doctor or nurse inserts one or two lubricated, gloved fingers of one hand into the vagina and places the other hand over the lower abdomen to feel the size, shape, and position of the uterus and ovaries. A speculum is also inserted into the vagina and the doctor or nurse looks at the vagina and cervix for signs of disease. A Pap test of the cervix is usually done. The doctor or nurse also inserts a lubricated, gloved finger into the rectum to feel for lumps or abnormal areas.
Pelvic exam. A doctor or nurse inserts one or two lubricated, gloved fingers of one hand into the vagina and presses on the lower abdomen with the other hand. This is done to feel the size, shape, and position of the uterus and ovaries. The vagina, cervix, fallopian tubes, and rectum are also checked.
curettage: A procedure to collect cells or tissue from the cervical canal using a curette (spoon-shaped instrument). Tissue samples may be taken and checked under a microscope for signs of cancer. This procedure is sometimes done at the same time as a colposcopy.
Certain factors affect prognosis (chance
of recovery) and treatment options.
The prognosis (chance of recovery) depends on the following:
The patient's age and general health.
Whether or not the patient has a certain type of human papillomavirus.
The stage of the cancer (whether it
affects part of the cervix, involves the whole cervix, or has spread to the
lymph nodes or other places in the
Treatment of cervical cancer during pregnancy depends on the stage
of the cancer and the stage of the pregnancy. For cervical cancer found early
or for cancer found during the last trimester of pregnancy, treatment may be
delayed until after the baby is born.