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Women's Health

Cervical Cancer

Illustration of the anatomy of the female pelvic area
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What is cancer?

Cancer is when cells in the body change and grow out of control. To help you understand what happens when you have cancer, let's look at how your body works normally. Your body is made up of tiny building blocks called cells. Normal cells grow when your body needs them, and die when your body does not need them any longer.

Cancer is made up of abnormal cells that grow even though your body doesn't need them. In most cancers, the abnormal cells grow to form a lump or mass called a tumor. If cancer cells are in the body long enough, they can grow into (invade) nearby areas. They can even spread to other parts of the body (metastasis).

What is cervical cancer?

Cancer that starts in cells of the cervix is called cervical cancer.

Understanding the cervix

The cervix is the lower, narrow part of the womb (uterus). It's located between the bladder and the rectum. It forms a canal that opens into the birth canal (vagina), which leads to the outside of the body.

Looking for precancer

Precancerous cells on the cervix are the first sign that cervical cancer may develop. These cells can be seen on a Pap test. They are cells that look abnormal, but are not yet cancer. The appearance of these cells may be the first sign of cancer that will grow years later. Treating these precancer cells can prevent cancer from growing. Precancer cells of the cervix often don’t cause pain or other symptoms. This is why regular cervical cancer screening is so important.

Types of precancer

Squamous intraepithelial lesions (SIL) is a term that refers to abnormal changes in the cells on the surface of the cervix. Changes in these cells can be divided into 2 categories:

  • Low-grade SIL. This refers to early changes in the size, shape, and number of cells that form the surface of the cervix. They may go away on their own or, with time, may grow larger or become more abnormal, forming a high-grade lesion.These changes may also be called mild dysplasia or cervical intraepithelial neoplasia 1 (CIN 1).

  • High-grade SIL. This means there are a large number of precancer cells, and, like low-grade SIL, these changes involve only cells on the surface of the cervix. The cells often do not become cancerous for many months, perhaps years, but without treatment, they will become cancer. High-grade lesions may also be called moderate or severe dysplasia, CIN 2 or 3, or carcinoma in situ.

If abnormal cells on the surface of the cervix are not found and treated, over time they can spread deeper into the cervix, or to other tissues or organs. This is then called cervical cancer, or invasive cervical cancer. Cervical cancer occurs most often in women younger than the age of 50. Most cervical cancer is squamous cell carcinoma or adenocarcinoma.

The death rates for cervical cancer have declined sharply as Pap screenings have become more prevalent. Today, most cervical cancer is found in women who have not had regular screening.

Preventing cervical cancer

Cervical cancer is one of the few types of cancer that doctors know how to prevent. There are two key ways to prevent cervical cancer:

  • Get regular Pap tests. These are done to find and treat any precancerous cells as soon as possible.

  • Prevent precancer cells. You can do this by avoiding contact with the human papilloma virus (HPV), getting an HPV vaccine, and not smoking.

Online Medical Reviewer: Cunningham, Louise, RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Stump-Sutliff, Kim, RN, MSN, AOCNS
Date Last Reviewed: 7/2/2015
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