Cervical Cancer at a Glance
- Cervical cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the cervix.
- It is usually a slow-growing cancer that may not have symptoms initially but can be found with regular Pap tests.
- An estimated 12,990 cases of invasive cervical cancer are expected to be diagnosed in 2016.
The cervix, a part of the woman’s reproductive system is in the pelvis. It is the lower, narrow part of the uterus. The cervix is a passageway:
- The cervix connects the uterus to the vagina. During a menstrual period, blood flows from the uterus through the cervix into the vagina. The vagina leads to the outside of the body.
- The cervix makes mucus. During sex, mucus helps sperm move from the vagina through the cervix into the uterus.
- During pregnancy, the cervix is tightly closed to help keep the baby inside the uterus. During childbirth, the cervix opens to allow the baby to pass through the vagina.
About Cervical Cancer
Normally, cells grow and divide to form new cells as the body needs them. When normal cells grow old or get damaged, they die, and new cells take their place. Sometimes, this process goes out of control; new cells form even when the body does not need them, and old or damaged cells do not die as they should. The buildup of extra cells often forms a mass of tissue called a growth or tumor.
Growths on the cervix can be benign or malignant. Benign growths are not cancer. They are not as harmful as malignant growths (cancer).
Benign Growths (polyps, cysts, or genital warts)
- are rarely a threat to life
- don’t invade the tissues around them
Malignant Growths (cervical cancer)
- may sometimes be a threat to life
- can invade nearby tissues and organs
- can spread to other parts of the body
Cervical cancer begins in cells on the surface of the cervix. Over time, the cervical cancer can invade more deeply into the cervix and nearby tissues. The cancer cells can spread by breaking away from the original (primary) tumor. They enter blood vessels or lymph vessels, which branch into all the tissues of the body. The cancer cells may attach to other tissues and grow to form new tumors that may damage those tissues. The spread of cancer is called metastasis. The type of cancer often determines the treatment options.
A risk factor is something that may increase the chance of developing a disease. Studies have found a number of factors that may increase the risk of cervical cancer.
- HPV infection: HPV is a group of viruses that can infect the cervix. An HPV infection that doesn’t go away can cause cervical cancer in some women. HPV is the cause of nearly all cervical cancers. HPV infections are very common. These viruses are passed from person to person through sexual contact. Most adults have been infected with HPV at some time in their lives, but most infections clear up on their own. Some types of HPV can cause changes to cells in the cervix. If these changes are found early, cervical cancer can be prevented by removing or killing the changed cells before they can become cancer cells.
- Lack of regular Pap tests: Cervical cancer is more common among women who don’t have regular Pap tests. The Pap test helps doctors find abnormal cells. Removing or killing the abnormal cells usually prevents cervical cancer.
- Smoking: Among women who are infected with HPV, smoking cigarettes slightly increases the risk of cervical cancer.
- Weakened immune system: Infection with HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) or taking drugs that suppress the immune system increases the risk of cervical cancer.
- Sexual history: Women who have had many sexual partners have a higher risk of developing cervical cancer. Also, a woman who has had sex with a man who has had many sexual partners may be at higher risk of developing cervical cancer. In both cases, the risk of developing cervical cancer is higher because these women have a higher risk of HPV infection.
- Using birth control pills for a long time: Using birth control pills for a long time (5 or more years) may slightly increase the risk of cervical cancer among women with HPV infection. However, the risk decreases quickly when women stop using birth control pills.
- Having many children: Studies suggest that giving birth to many children (5 or more) may slightly increase the risk of cervical cancer among women with HPV infection.
- DES (diethylstilbestrol): DES may increase the risk of a rare form of cervical cancer in daughters exposed to this drug before birth. DES was given to some pregnant women in the United States between about 1940 and 1971. (It is no longer given to pregnant women.)