Cervical cancer can often be found early, and sometimes even prevented entirely, by having regular Pap tests. If detected early, cervical cancer is one of the most successfully treatable cancers.
What Is Cervical Cancer?
Cancer starts when cells in the body begin to grow out of control. Cells in nearly any part of the body can become cancer, and can spread to other areas of the body. To learn more about how cancers start and spread, see What Is Cancer?
Cervical cancer starts in the cells lining the cervix — the lower part of the uterus (womb). This is sometimes called the uterine cervix. The fetus grows in the body of the uterus (the upper part). The cervix connects the body of the uterus to the vagina (birth canal).
The cervix has two different parts and is covered with two different types of cells.
1. The part of the cervix closest to the body of the uterus is called the endocervix and is covered with glandular cells.
2. The part next to the vagina is the exocervix (or ectocervix) and is covered in squamous cells.
These two cell types meet at a place called the transformation zone. The exact location of the transformation zone changes as you get older and if you give birth.
Most cervical cancers begin in the cells in the transformation zone. These cells do not suddenly change into cancer. Instead, the normal cells of the cervix first gradually develop pre-cancerous changes that turn into cancer. Doctors use several terms to describe these pre-cancerous changes, including cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN), squamous intraepithelial lesion (SIL), and dysplasia. These changes can be detected by the Pap test and treated to prevent cancer from developing
Although cervical cancers start from cells with pre-cancerous changes (pre-cancers), only some of the women with pre-cancers of the cervix will develop cancer. It usually takes several years for cervical pre-cancer to change to cervical cancer, but it also can happen in less than a year. For most women, pre-cancerous cells will go away without any treatment. Still, in some women pre-cancers turn into true (invasive) cancers. Treating all cervical pre-cancers can prevent almost all cervical cancers.
Types of Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancers and cervical pre-cancers are classified by how they look under a microscope. The main types of cervical cancers are squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma.
Squamous Cell CarcinomasMost (up to 9 out of 10) cervical cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. These cancers develop from cells in the exocervix and the cancer cells have features of squamous cells under the microscope. Squamous cell carcinomas most often begin in the transformation zone (where the exocervix joins the endocervix).
AdenocarcinomasMost of the other cervical cancers are adenocarcinomas. Adenocarcinomas are cancers that develop from gland cells. Cervical adenocarcinoma develops from the mucus-producing gland cells of the endocervix. Cervical adenocarcinomas seem to have become more common in the past 20 to 30 years.
Adenosquamous carcinomasLess commonly, cervical cancers have features of both squamous cell carcinomas and adenocarcinomas. These are called adenosquamous carcinomas or mixed carcinomas.
Although almost all cervical cancers are either squamous cell carcinomas or adenocarcinomas, other types of cancer also can develop in the cervix. These other types, such as melanoma, sarcoma, and lymphoma, occur more commonly in other parts of the body.
Treating Cervical Cancer General Treatment Information
The options for treating each patient with cervical cancer depend on the stage of disease. The stage of a cervical cancer describes its size, depth of invasion (how far it has grown into the cervix), and how far it has spread.
After establishing the stage of your cervical cancer, your cancer care team will recommend your treatment options. Think about your options without feeling rushed. If there is anything you do not understand, ask for an explanation. Although the choice of treatment depends largely on the stage of the disease at the time of diagnosis, other factors that may influence your options are your age, your general health, your individual circumstances, and your preferences. Cervical cancer can affect your sex life and your ability to have children. These concerns should also be considered as you make treatment decisions. Be sure that you understand all the risks and side effects of the various treatments before making a decision.
Depending on the type and stage of your cancer, you may need more than one type of treatment. Doctors on your cancer treatment team may include:
- A Gynecologist: a doctor who treats diseases of the female reproductive system
- A Gynecologic Oncologist: a doctor who specializes in cancers of the female reproductive system
- A Radiation Oncologist: a doctor who uses radiation to treat cancer
- A Medical Oncologist: a doctor who uses chemotherapy and other medicines to treat cancer
Many other specialists may be involved in your care as well, including nurse practitioners, nurses, psychologists, social workers, rehabilitation specialists, and other health professionals.
Common Types of Treatments for Cervical Cancer include:
- Radiation Therapy
- Chemotherapy (chemo)
- Targeted Therapy
For the earliest stages of cervical cancer, either surgery or radiation combined with chemo may be used. For later stages, radiation combined with chemo is usually the main treatment. Chemo (by itself) is often used to treat advanced cervical cancer.
It is often a good idea to get a second opinion, especially from doctors experienced in treating cervical cancer. A second opinion can give you more information and help you feel more confident about choosing a treatment plan. Some insurance companies require a second opinion before they will agree to pay for certain treatments. Almost all will pay for a second opinion. Still, you might want to check your coverage first, so you’ll know if you will have to pay for it.
It is important to discuss all of your treatment options, including their goals and possible side effects, with your doctors to help make the decisions that best fit your needs. It’s also very important to ask questions if there’s anything you’re not sure about.
Your recovery is the goal of your cancer care team. If a cure is not possible, the goal may be to remove or destroy as much of the cancer as possible to help you live longer and feel better. Sometimes treatment is aimed at relieving symptoms. This is called palliative treatment.