Cervical cancer (or cervix cancer) is cancer of the cervix. The cervix is the lower part of the uterus (womb), which opens into the vagina.
Worldwide, cervical cancer is the second-most-common type of cancer that strikes women – behind only breast cancer. n the United States, cervical cancer is the 14th most common cause of new cancers diagnosed among women every year.
The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2007, about 11,150 women in the United States developed cervical cancer and about 3,700 died from it.
That lower occurrence of cervical cancer in the United States is largely thanks to the Pap test, which has helped decrease the number of American women with cervical cancer by about 75 percent in the past 50 years. The bad news is that too many women are still getting cervical cancer and are still dying. It's estimated that globally, one in every 123 women will develop cervical cancer, if screened only with the Pap test. This, however, can change for the better. In addition to regular Pap testing of all eligible women, cervical cancer prevention can be improved with the use of the HPV test (if age 30 or older) and the new HPV vaccine (ages 9-26).
"High-risk" types of the human papillomavirus (HPV) have been shown to be the cause of cervical cancer. Most women will get one or more types of "high-risk" (potentially cancer-causing) HPV at least once in their lives. The body's immune system usually fights off the infection, and most women with HPV never suffer from any problems as a result. In some women, however, the infection does not go away. When the virus stays active in the body for a long period of time, cervical cells may begin to change and the risk of cervical cancer increases.
High-risk types of the HPV virus are the cause of cervical cancer. However, other factors can increase the likelihood that an HPV infection develops into cervical cancer:
Exposure while in the womb to a medication called diethylstilbestrol (DES), which was prescribed to many women to prevent miscarriage between 1938 and 1971.
Infection with chlamydia or herpes simplex virus type 2 (both different types of sexually transmitted diseases). A first-degree relative (mother or sister) with a history of cervical cancer, which the International Journal of Cancer reports increases personal risk three- old.
Conditions that weaken the body's immune system, such as HIV/AIDS.
Smoking, which interferes with the body's ability to fight off infection. [In fact, one study showed that smokers are 60 percent more likely to develop cervical cancer, and former smokers are 12 percent more likely.] Low levels of folic acid (a type of Vitamin B).
There also are some data that suggest that long-term use of oral contraceptives (10 or more years) may increase the risk of some types of cervical cancer.
The best way to protect yourself is to get regular cervical cancer screenings with the Pap and – if you're older than 30 – the HPV test. Together, these tests determine if you are likely to have or to develop abnormal cells that could become cancerous if not removed. If your Pap looks abnormal and HPV testing shows you have an infection with a high-risk type of the virus, your doctor, nurse or other healthcare professional can perform an additional exam called a colposcopy to determine if any abnormal cells need to be removed.
Once cervical cells begin to change, it typically takes 10-15 years before invasive cervical cancer develops. As the cells change, they first become "pre-cancerous" – a condition also known as "dysplasia" or CIN – the abbreviation for cervical intraepithelial neoplasia.
If detected early, dysplasia can be treated before the cells become cancerous.
Symptoms do not always occur when cervical cancer develops. However, when they do, they may include:
Cervical cancer is diagnosed through a series of exams, typically beginning with a Pap and – if you’re older than 30 – the HPV test, followed by a colposcopy (in which a lighted, magnifying instrument is used to examine your cervix) and biopsy (in which a sample of tissue is removed for analysis in a laboratory).
If you are diagnosed with cervical cancer, your physician(s) will discuss the best treatments with you.
Treatment options depend on the following: