Cervical cancer happens when cells in the cervix, the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina, start to become abnormal. Small changes in the cell DNA tell them to multiply out of control, and cells accumulate in growths called tumours.
What is Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer is a growth of cells that starts in the cervix. The cervix is the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina.
Various strains of the human papillomavirus, also called HPV, play a role in causing most cervical cancers. HPV is a common infection that’s passed through sexual contact. When exposed to HPV, the body’s immune system typically prevents the virus from harming. In a small percentage of people, however, the virus survives for years. This contributes to the process that causes some cervical cells to become cancer cells.
You can reduce your risk of developing cervical cancer by having screening tests and receiving a vaccine that protects against HPV infection.
When cervical cancer happens, it’s often first treated with surgery to remove the cancer. Other treatments may include medicines to kill the cancer cells. Options might include chemotherapy and targeted therapy medicines. Radiation therapy with powerful energy beams also may be used. Sometimes treatment combines radiation with low-dose chemotherapy.
When it starts, cervical cancer might not cause symptoms. As it grows, cervical cancer might cause signs and symptoms, such as:
- Vaginal bleeding after intercourse, between periods or after menopause.
- Menstrual bleeding that is heavier and lasts longer than usual.
- Watery, bloody vaginal discharge that may be heavy and have a foul odour.
- Pelvic pain or pain during intercourse.
Cervical cancer begins when healthy cells in the cervix develop changes in their DNA. A cell’s DNA contains the instructions that tell a cell what to do. The changes tell the cells to multiply quickly. The cells continue living when healthy cells would die as part of their natural life cycle. This causes too many cells. The cells might form a mass called a tumour. The cells can invade and destroy healthy body tissue. In time, the cells can break away and spread to other parts of the body.
Most cervical cancers are caused by HPV. HPV is a common virus that’s passed through sexual contact. For most people, the virus never causes problems. It usually goes away on its own. For some, though, the virus can cause changes in the cells that may lead to cancer.
Types of cervical cancer
Cervical cancer is divided into types based on the type of cell in which the cancer begins. The main types of cervical cancer are:
- Squamous cell carcinoma. This type of cervical cancer begins in thin, flat cells, called squamous cells. The squamous cells line the outer part of the cervix. Most cervical cancers are squamous cell carcinomas.
- Adenocarcinoma. This type of cervical cancer begins in the column-shaped gland cells that line the cervical canal.
Sometimes, both types of cells are involved in cervical cancer. Very rarely, cancer occurs in other cells in the cervix.
To reduce your risk of cervical cancer:
- Ask your doctor about the HPV vaccine. Receiving a vaccination to prevent HPV infection may reduce your risk of cervical cancer and other HPV-related cancers. Ask your healthcare team if an HPV vaccine is right for you.
- Have routine Pap tests. Pap tests can detect precancerous conditions of the cervix. These conditions can be monitored or treated to prevent cervical cancer. Most medical organisations suggest beginning routine Pap tests at age 21 and repeating them every few years.
- Practice safe sex. Reduce your risk of cervical cancer by taking measures to prevent sexually transmitted infections. This may include using a condom every time you have sex and limiting the number of sexual partners you have.
- Don’t smoke. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do smoke, talk to a healthcare professional about ways to help you quit.