Thumbnail image of: Female Pelvis: Illustration

Cervical Cancer

What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is the growth of abnormal cells in the cervix. The abnormal cells are called a tumor. The cervix is the lower part of the uterus that opens into the vagina. The uterus is the muscular organ at the top of the vagina. Babies grow in the uterus, and menstrual blood comes from the uterus, through the cervix.

Cervical cancer is one of the most common cancers affecting women. Most often, it occurs in women age 40 or older.

The sooner cervical cancer is found and treated, the greater the chances are that you will keep your ability to have children, and the better your chances for recovery. However, even advanced cancer can usually be treated. Treatment may slow or stop the growth of the cancer and ease symptoms. Ask your healthcare provider what you can expect with the type of cancer that you have.

What is the cause?

The exact cause of cervical cancer is not known. However, women with certain risk factors may be more likely than others to have cervical cancer.

The main risk factor for cervical cancer is infection with human papillomavirus (HPV). There are many types of HPV and they can infect different parts of the body. Some types infect the genital area and can develop into cancer. Possible risk factors for HPV are:

  • Having sex when you were a teen
  • Having more than 1 sex partner or having a partner who has had many other partners

You may have an increased risk of cervical cancer if:

  • You are not having regular Pap and HPV tests to look for abnormal, precancerous cells in the cervix or HPV. The cells in the cervix start to change before they become cancerous. Early detection and treatment of precancerous cells and HPV can keep the cells from becoming cancer.
  • Your mother, sister, or daughter had cervical cancer.
  • You have a sexually transmitted disease or infection (STD or STI).
  • You smoke.
  • You have a weakened immune system–for example, because you are taking immunosuppressive drugs or because you have AIDS.
  • You have used birth control pills for many years.
  • Being exposed to DES when your mother was pregnant. DES, or diethylstilbestrol, is a medicine that in years past was given to some women to prevent miscarriage.

What are the symptoms?

Abnormal cells in the cervix and the early stages of cervical cancer do not always cause symptoms. In later stages of cervical cancer, symptoms may include:

  • Blood-stained vaginal discharge or abnormal vaginal bleeding. For example, you may have bleeding between menstrual periods, after sex, or after menopause. Menstrual periods may last longer and be heavier than normal.
  • Increased vaginal discharge
  • Pain during sex
  • Pain in your lower belly

Infections or other health problems may also cause these symptoms. If you have any of these symptoms, tell your healthcare provider.

What is metastasis?

The spread of cancer cells from one part of the body to other parts is called metastasis. What causes cancer to spread is not known. Cancer cells can:

  • Grow into the area around the tumor
  • Travel to other parts of the body through the bloodstream or the lymph system. The lymph system is part of your body’s system for fighting infection. The lymph system consists of lymph nodes that store blood cells (lymphocytes) to fight infection and vessels that carry fluid, nutrients, and wastes between your body and your bloodstream. New tumors then grow in these other areas.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and sexual and medical history and examine you. You will have a pelvic exam and possibly a Pap test. Other tests may include:

  • An HPV test, which can be done at the same time that you have a Pap test
  • Colposcopy, which uses a type of microscope placed just outside the vagina to get a close-up view of your cervix. Your healthcare provider may use a tool during this exam to take a biopsy. A biopsy is the removal of a small sample of tissue for testing.
  • Blood tests
  • CT scan, which uses X-rays and a computer to show detailed pictures of the cervix
  • MRI, which uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to show detailed pictures of the cervix

How is it treated?

The treatment depends on the size of the tumor and if it has spread. You and your healthcare provider will discuss possible treatments. You may also talk with a surgeon and a cancer specialist. Some things to think about when making treatment decisions are:

  • Your age
  • Your overall health
  • The stage of the cancer (how advanced the cancer is)
  • Whether the cancer has spread to other parts of your body

Possible treatments are:

  • Surgery: Usually you will have some type of surgery. Surgery may include:
    • Cone biopsy: Surgery to remove a cone-shaped piece of tissue from your cervix. A scalpel, a laser, or an electrical current may be used to do the biopsy. If not all abnormal tissue can be removed, further surgery will be needed.
    • Hysterectomy: Surgery to remove your cervix and uterus. If your uterus is removed, you will no longer be able to have children.
    • Surgery to remove lymph nodes in the pelvic area (below the belly and between the hips) to check if the cancer has spread. This helps your healthcare provider know if you need more treatment after you recover from surgery.
  • Chemotherapy (anticancer drugs), which uses medicine to kill cancer cells
  • Radiation therapy, which uses high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells

Often, more than 1 of these treatments is used.

Your treatment will also include:

  • Preventing infections
  • Controlling pain or other symptoms you may have
  • Controlling the side effects from treatments
  • Helping you manage your life with cancer

With early treatment, there is a good chance of cure. After treatment, you will need to have regular follow-up visits with your healthcare provider.

Ask your healthcare provider about clinical trials that might be available to you. Clinical trials are research studies to find effective cancer treatments. It’s always your choice whether you take part in one.

How can I take care of myself?

  • Talk about your cancer and treatment options with your healthcare provider. Make sure you understand your choices.
  • Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider.
  • Report abnormal vaginal bleeding right away to your healthcare provider.
  • Get a pelvic exam, Pap test, and HPV test as often as recommended by your healthcare provider.
  • Other things that may help include:
    • Eat a healthy diet and get regular exercise and rest. Keep a healthy weight.
    • Try to reduce stress and take time for activities that you enjoy. It may help to talk with a counselor about your illness.
    • Talk with your family and your healthcare providers about your concerns. Ask your healthcare provider any questions you have about the disease, treatments, side effects of the treatments, sexuality, support groups, and anything else that concerns you.
    • If you smoke, try to quit.
    • Ask your provider if you need to avoid drinking alcohol. It may interfere with medicines you are taking. Alcohol can also make it harder for white blood cells to fight infections.
    • Tell your provider if your treatment causes discomfort. Usually there are ways to help you be more comfortable.
  • Ask your healthcare provider:
    • How and when you will hear your test results
    • How long it will take to recover
    • What activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
    • How to take care of yourself at home
    • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them
  • Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.

How can I help keep the cancer from spreading or coming back?

Complete the full course of surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy treatments ordered by your healthcare provider. See your provider right away if you notice a return of any previous symptoms or you have new symptoms.

How can I help prevent cervical cancer?

To help lower your risk of getting cervical cancer:

  • Try to avoid exposure to HPV. Do not have more than 1 sexual partner. It will also help if your partner has not been sexually active with anyone else. Find out if your partner has had any sexually transmitted diseases or infections (STDs or STIs). You can get some protection from HPV by using latex or polyurethane condoms every time you have sex. However, condoms do not completely protect against HPV, which can be spread from other parts of the body.
  • Ask your healthcare provider about getting a vaccine that helps prevent types of HPV infection that increase your risk for cervical cancer. HPV shots are approved for females and males between the ages of 9 and 26 years.

You can get more information from:

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-06-09
Last reviewed: 2014-02-05
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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