What is Cervical Cancer?

Cervical cancer is cancer that starts in the cervix, the narrow part of the uterus located between the bladder and the rectum, and is found only in women.  

Cervical cancer occurs most often in women younger than the age of 50. Most cervical cancers are squamous cell carcinomas and adenocarcinomas.

Precancerous Conditions

Precancerous conditions of the cervix are identified as cells that look abnormal, but are not cancerous at the present time. However, the appearance of these abnormal cells may be the first evidence of cancer that develops years later.

Precancerous changes of the cervix usually do not cause pain and, in general, do not cause any symptoms. They are detected with a pelvic exam or a Pap test.

Squamous intraepithelial lesions (SIL) is a term that refers to abnormal changes in the cells on the surface of the cervix:

  • Squamous. These cells are the flat cells found on the surface (of the cervix)
  • Intraepithelial. This means that the abnormal cells are present only in the surface layer of cells
  • Lesion. This refers to an area of abnormal tissue

According to the National Cancer Institute, changes in these cells can be divided into two categories:

  • Low-grade SIL. This refers to early changes in the size, shape, and number of cells that form the surface of the cervix.
  • High-grade SIL. This means there are a large number of precancerous cells, and, like low-grade SIL, these changes involve only cells on the surface of the cervix.

Cervical Cancer Risk Factors

The following are risk factors for cervical cancer:

  • Infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Not getting regular Pap tests
  • Smoking
  • Diet
  • Chlamydia infection
  • Using birth control pills for a long time
  • Having many children
  • Having sexual intercourse before the age of 18
  • Family history of cervical cancer

Cervical Cancer Prevention

Early detection of cervical problems is the best way to prevent cervical cancer. Routine, annual pelvic exams and Pap tests can detect precancerous conditions that often can be treated before cancer develops.

Women who are age 21 or older should have regular checkups, including a pelvic exam and Pap test.

Because certain strains of HPV have been found to cause most cases of cervical cancer, research efforts have focused on developing a vaccine against HPV. Two HPV vaccines have been approved:

  • Gardasil protects against four types of the HPV virus--the two types of viruses that cause most cervical cancers, and the two that cause 90 percent of genital warts
  • Cervarix protects against the two types of the HPV virus that cause most cervical cancers

Both vaccines are administered as a series of three injections over a six-month period. To be most effective, one of the vaccines should be given before a person becomes sexually active.

Cervical Cancer Symptoms

Symptoms of cervical cancer usually do not appear until abnormal cervical cells become cancerous and invade nearby tissue. Cervical cancer symptoms may include:

  • Abnormal bleeding
  • Heavier menstrual bleeding
  • Bleeding after menopause
  • Increased vaginal discharge
  • Pain during intercourse

Diagnosing Cervical Cancer

When cervical problems are found during a pelvic examination, or abnormal cells are found through a Pap test, a cervical biopsy may be performed.

There are several types of cervical biopsies that are used to diagnose cervical cancer. Some types of cervical biopsies include:

  • Loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP)
  • Colposcopy
  • Endocervical curettage (ECC)
  • Cone biopsy (also called conization)
  • HPV DNA test
  • Cold knife cone biopsy

Cervical Cancer Treatment

Treatment for cervical cancer may include any of the following:

  • Surgery, including:
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy

For more information on cervical cancer treatment or to schedule an appointment, contact Christian Hospital at 314.747.9355 or toll-free at 877.747.9355 or email us.