Return to Previous Page

General Information About Cervical Cancer


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).

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 cervical tissue. Later, cancer cells start to grow and spread more deeply into the cervix and to surrounding areas.

Cervical cancer in children is rare.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection is the major risk factor for development of cervical cancer.

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:

  • Giving birth to many children.
  • Having many sexual partners.
  • Having first sexual intercourse at a young age.
  • Smoking cigarettes.
  • Oral contraceptive use ("the Pill").
  • Weakened immune system.

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 pelvic pain.

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 occur:

  • Vaginal bleeding.
  • Unusual vaginal discharge.
  • Pelvic pain.
  • Pain during sexual intercourse.

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.
  • 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 tissue).
  • 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.
  • Endocervical 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 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 body).
  • The type of cervical cancer.
  • The size of the tumor.

Treatment options depend on the following:

  • The stage of the cancer.
  • The size of the tumor.
  • The patient's desire to have children.
  • The patient’s age.

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.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Source: National Cancer Institute, www.cancer.gov