A Broad Overview of Cervical Cancer

According to the Mayo Clinic In Rochester, Minn., 10,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year. Of these 10,000 women, 4,000 will die.

The cause in most cases of cervical cancer is a sexually transmitted infection called human papillomavirus (HPV). The immune system of the woman usually prevents HPV from doing any harm, however; in a small amount of women the virus will survive for years before turning some surface cervix cells into cancer cells.

The Mayo Clinic lists two main types of cervical cancer: squamous cell carcinomas and adenocarcinomas.

Squamous cell carcinomas account for 80 to 90 percent of cervical cancers. This type starts in the flat, thin cells that line the bottom of the cervix.

Adenocarcinomas account for the other 10 to 20 percent of cervical cancers. This cancer type starts in the glandular cells that line the upper part of the cervix.


Regular cervical screening, a pap smear test, is the best way to prevent cervical cancer. This is because early cervical cancer has no symptoms. Symptoms of advanced cervical cancer include:

heavy water, bloody vaginal discharge that may have a foul smell
vaginal bleeding after intercourse, between periods or after menopause
pelvic pain or pain during intercourse

Risk Factors

There are several factors that could increase a woman’s risk of cervical cancer. They include:

many sexual partners – including if the male has had many sexual partners which heightens the risk.
early sexual activity – before age 18. Immature cells seem to be more susceptible to HPV changes.
sexually transmitted diseases (STD) – if a woman has a STD, the greater her chance of having HPV.
weak immune system – if immune system is weak because of another health condition the risk is heightened again.
cigarette smoking – tobacco use increases the risk of precancerous changes.


Screening is an important tool in detecting abnormal cells early. Many guidelines suggest screening within three years of becoming sexually active or no later than age 21. Two screening tests are the pap test and the HPV DNA test. The pap test brushes cells off the cervix to be examined. The HPV DNA test also collects cervix cells to be examined but also checks for any 13 strains of HPV.

If a woman has abnormal cells or signs of cervical cancer, the doctor will need to do further testing to make a diagnosis. Further testing includes:

examining the cervix
a sample of cervical cells
removing a cone-shaped area of cervical cells


Using imaging tests and a visual exam of the bladder and rectum, the doctor will be able to assign the cancer a stage. There are five stages (0-IV). In Stage 0 the cancer is small and confined to the cervix surface. Stage I means the cancer is confined to the cervix. In Stage II, cancer is in the cervix and uterus. Stage III means the cancer has moved beyond the cervix and uterus into the pelvic wall or lower portion of the vagina. Stage IV means the cancer has spread to nearby organs, such as the lungs, liver or bladder.


Treatment will be determined depending upon whether the cancer is invasive (invades deeper than the surface layer of cervix) or noninvasive (outside layer of cervix only).

For noninvasive cancer, here are treatment options:

cone biopsy
laser surgery
loop electrosurgical excision procedure

Invasive cancer treatment options include:


These options may make it impossible to a woman to get pregnant. If the cancer is early, the doctor may be able to save the uterus by removing only the cervix and surrounding tissue.


The best way to prevent cervical cancer is to prevent an HPV infection. HPV is spread by skin-to-skin contact with an infected body part, not just during intercourse. To prevent an HPV infection and cervical cancer, make sure to get vaccinated against HPV and have a regular pap smear test. Other prevention ways include:

fewer sexual partners
not smoking
delaying first intercourse

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