Cervical Cancer (Cancer of the Cervix)

  • Medical Author:
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

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Quick GuideCervical Cancer Symptoms, Treatment, HPV and Prevention

Cervical Cancer Symptoms, Treatment, HPV and Prevention

What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is cancer that begins in the uterine cervix, the lower end of the uterus that contacts the upper vagina. Cervical cancer occurs in almost 13,000 women each year in the US, leading to about 4,100 deaths. Since 1980, the incidence of cervical cancer has fallen by 45%, and the mortality (death) rate for cervical cancer has declined by 49%. Survival rates among African American women are lower than for any other racial or ethnic group in the US. Cervical cancer remains a common cause of cancer and cancer death in women in developing countries without access to screening (Pap testing) for cervical cancer or vaccines against human papillomaviruses (HPVs).

Cervical cancer is different from cancer that begins in other regions of the uterus (uterine or endometrial cancer). If detected early, cervical cancer has a very high cure rate. Vaccination against HPVs, which are known to cause cervical cancer, is an effective preventive measure.

How do women get cervical cancer? What causes cervical cancer?

Almost all cervical cancers are caused by longstanding infection with one of the HPVs. HPV infection is very common, and most people with HPV infection do not develop cancer. There are over 100 types of HPVs, and only certain types have been linked to cancers. Other HPV types cause benign warts on the skin or genitals. The so-called “high risk” HPV types have been shown to cause cancers of the cervix as well as cancers of the penis in men. HPVs can also cause cancers of the mouth, throat, and anus in people of both sexes.

HPV infection is spread through sexual contact or skin-to-skin contact. Many studies have shown that HPV infection is common and that a majority of people will be infected with HPV at some point in life. The infection typically resolves on its own. In some women, the HPV infection persists and causes precancerous changes in the cells of the cervix. These changes can be detected by regular cervical cancer screening (known as Pap testing). With Pap testing, a superficial sample of cells from the cervix is taken with a brush or swab during a routine pelvic examination and sent to a laboratory for analysis of the cells' appearance.

Dysplasia is abnormal-appearing cells that are not cancers but may be precancerous. Dysplasia of the cervix identified at the time of Pap testing is referred to as a squamous intraepithelial lesion (SIL). Cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN) is another term used to classify precancerous changes in the cervix that are seen on tissue samples such as biopsies. Precancerous changes in the cervix such as CIN and SIL can typically be treated, which can prevent the development of cancer.

The cervix itself contains two types of cells- the lining cells of the outer cervix, known as squamous cells, and the cells that line the interior channel of the cervix. These interior cells have features of glandular cells. The point at which the squamous and glandular cells meet is known as the transition zone, and it is in this area that most cervical precancers and cancers begin to grow. Up to 90% of cervical cancers arise from the squamous cells and are called squamous cell carcinomas, with most of the remainder coming from the glandular cells (adenocarcinomas).

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 2/4/2016

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