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Cervical Cancer


Topic Overview

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This topic talks about the testing, diagnosis, and treatment of cervical cancer. For general information about abnormal Pap test results, see the topic Abnormal Pap Test.

What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer occurs when abnormal cells on the cervixClick here to see an illustration. grow out of control. The cervix is the lower part of the uterus that opens into the vagina. Cervical cancer can often be successfully treated when it's found early. It is usually found at a very early stage through a Pap test.

Cervical cancer is one of the most common cancers in women worldwide. But in the United States and other countries where cervical cancer screening is routine, this cancer is not so common.1

What causes cervical cancer?

Most cervical cancer is caused by a virus called human papillomavirus, or HPV. You can get HPV by having sexual contact with someone who has it. There are many types of the HPV virus. Not all types of HPV cause cervical cancer. Some of them cause genital warts, but other types may not cause any symptoms.

Most adults have been infected with HPV at some time. An infection may go away on its own. But sometimes it can cause genital warts or lead to cervical cancer. That's why it's important for women to have regular Pap tests. A Pap test can find changes in cervical cells before they turn into cancer. If you treat these cell changes, you may prevent cervical cancer.

What are the symptoms?

Abnormal cervical cell changes rarely cause symptoms. But you may have symptoms if those cell changes grow into cervical cancer. Symptoms of cervical cancer may include:

  • Bleeding from the vagina that is not normal, such as bleeding between menstrual periods, after sex, or after menopause.
  • Pain in the lower belly or pelvis.
  • Pain during sex.
  • Vaginal discharge that isn't normal.

How is cervical cancer diagnosed?

As part of your regular pelvic exam, you should have a Pap test. During a Pap test, the doctor scrapes a small sample of cells from the surface of the cervix to look for cell changes. If a Pap test shows abnormal cell changes, your doctor may do other tests to look for precancerous or cancer cells on your cervix.

Your doctor may also do a Pap test and take a sample of tissue (biopsy) if you have symptoms of cervical cancer, such as bleeding after sex.

How is it treated?

The treatment for most stages of cervical cancer includes:

  • Surgery, such as a hysterectomy and removal of pelvic lymph nodes with or without removal of both ovaries and fallopian tubes.
  • Chemotherapy.
  • Radiation therapy.

Depending on how much the cancer has grown, you may have one or more treatments. And you may have a combination of treatments. If you have a hysterectomy, you won't be able to have children. But a hysterectomy isn't always needed, especially when cancer is found very early.

Finding out that you have cancer can change your life. You may feel like your world has turned upside down and you have lost all control. Talking with family, friends, or a counselor can really help. Ask your doctor about support groups. Or call the American Cancer Society (1-800-227-2345) or visit its website at www.cancer.org.

Can cervical cancer be prevented?

The Pap test is the best way to find cervical cell changes that can lead to cervical cancer. Regular Pap tests almost always show these cell changes before they turn into cancer. It's important to follow up with your doctor after any abnormal Pap test result so you can treat abnormal cell changes. This may help prevent cervical cancer.

If you are age 26 or younger, you can get the HPV vaccine, which protects against two types of HPV that cause most cases of cervical cancer.

The virus that causes cervical cancer is spread through sexual contact. The best way to avoid getting a sexually transmitted infection is to not have sex. If you do have sex, practice safer sex, such as using condoms and limiting the number of sex partners you have.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about cervical cancer:

  • What is cervical cancer?
  • What causes it?
  • Can I prevent it?
  • What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?
  • What increases my risk for cervical cancer?
  • Click here to view a Decision Point.Should my daughter get the HPV vaccine?

Being diagnosed:

  • How is cervical cancer diagnosed?
  • What tests will I need?

Getting treatment:

  • What is the treatment for cervical cancer?
  • Will I need surgery?
  • Will I need to take medicines?
  • Will I need radiation therapy?
  • Are there alternative treatments?
  • When should I call my doctor?
  • How will I feel after treatment?

Living with cervical cancer:

  • Will cervical cancer affect my ability to have children?
  • Will it affect my body image and sexuality?

End-of-life issues:

  • What is care at the end of life?
  • What is hospice care?
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