Cervical cancer - At a glance

This page offers an overview of cervical cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body.. Use the menu on the left-hand side to discover more.

The cervix

  • Is the neck of the uterus The womb, where embryo implantation occurs and the growing foetus is nourished.(womb) that fits into the upper part of the vagina
  • Acts as a muscular band keeping the developing baby inside the womb during pregnancy.

Cervical cancer

  • Is triggered by persistent infectionInvasion by organisms that may be harmful, for example bacteria or parasites. with a sexually-transmitted virusA microbe that is only able to multiply within living cells. called human papilloma virusA sexually transmitted virus that can cause genital warts and may also have a role in the development of various cancers. (HPVAn abbreviation for human papilloma virus, a sexually transmitted virus that can cause genital warts and may also have a role in the development of various cancers.)
  • Is more common with some other sexually transmitted infections as well, including Chlamydia, genital herpesA sexually transmitted infection caused by the herpes simplex virus. and HIV
  • Is more common in women who smoke
  • May also be associated with suppression of the immune systemThe organs specialised to fight infection., the oral contraceptiveA term used to describe something that prevents pregnancy. pill and multiple childbirths.

Human papilloma virus

  • Does not usually cause any symptoms, although some types cause genital warts
  • Is a common sexually transmitted infectionInvasion by organisms that may be harmful, for example bacteria or parasites. and does not trigger cervical cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. in the majority of women
  • Has more than 30 different strains, 15 of which are thought to increase the risk for cervical cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. - in particular, HPV16 and HPV18
  • Is more common in people who have had many sexual partners and those who don't use safer sex practices
  • Can be tested for alongside a cervical screening test
  • Cannot be treated, but infectionInvasion by organisms that may be harmful, for example bacteria or parasites. is often transient
  • Produces precancerous changes in the cells of the cervixAny neck-like structure; most commonly refers to the neck of the uterus. that can progress to cervical cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body.. However, these changes can be treated
  • Can effectively be prevented by vaccination, which in some countries is offered to young women before they become sexually active.

The cervical screening test

  • Can detect abnormal cellThe basic unit of all living organisms. changes so that they can be treated before they progress to cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body.
  • Lasts just five minutes and should be painless, although some women do find it a bit uncomfortable
  • Involves gently brushing a few cells from the surface of the cervixAny neck-like structure; most commonly refers to the neck of the uterus., which are then examined under a microscope
  • Has been introduced in many countries with great success in reducing the number of cases of cervical cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body.
  • May be followed by colposcopyClose examination of the cervix of the uterus using a magnifying instrument with attached light source, known as a colposcope. if any changes are seen - the close examination of the cervixAny neck-like structure; most commonly refers to the neck of the uterus. using a magnifying instrument. Colposcopy also allows for biopsyThe removal of a small sample of cells or tissue so that it may be examined under a microscope. The term may also refer to the tissue sample itself. and treatment measures.

The abnormal tissue of the cervixAny neck-like structure; most commonly refers to the neck of the uterus., which can be diagnosed with certainty only on cervical biopsyThe removal of a small sample of cells or tissue so that it may be examined under a microscope. The term may also refer to the tissue sample itself., is called cervical intraepithelial neoplasiaAbnormal changes in the cervix of the uterus that may resolve spontaneously, or may progress to cervical cancer. or CINAn abbreviation for cervical intraepithelial neoplasia, abnormal changes in the cervix of the uterus that may resolve spontaneously, or may progress to cervical cancer.. CINAn abbreviation for cervical intraepithelial neoplasia, abnormal changes in the cervix of the uterus that may resolve spontaneously, or may progress to cervical cancer. grades represent a spectrum of changes from a healthy cervixAny neck-like structure; most commonly refers to the neck of the uterus. - from minimal change to more marked abnormalities, up to cervical cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body..

While most low-grade CINAn abbreviation for cervical intraepithelial neoplasia, abnormal changes in the cervix of the uterus that may resolve spontaneously, or may progress to cervical cancer. abnormalities will resolve spontaneously, higher grades of CINAn abbreviation for cervical intraepithelial neoplasia, abnormal changes in the cervix of the uterus that may resolve spontaneously, or may progress to cervical cancer. are treated to prevent progression to cervical cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body..

Test and treat

Treatment measures that may be done during colposcopyClose examination of the cervix of the uterus using a magnifying instrument with attached light source, known as a colposcope. include:

  • Large loop excisionThe removal of a piece of tissue or an organ from the body. of the transformation zone (LLETZAn abbreviation for large loop excision of the transformation zone, a type of surgery used to cut out abnormal tissue of the cervix of the uterus. It uses a loop of heated wire that acts like a scalpel.), also known as loop electrosurgical excisionThe removal of a piece of tissue or an organ from the body. procedure (LEEPAn abbreviation for loop electro-surgical excision procedure, a type of surgery used to cut out abnormal tissue of the cervix of the uterus. It uses a loop of heated wire that acts like a scalpel.) - a heated wire loop removes the area containing abnormal cells
  • Cryotherapy - the abnormal cells are frozen
  • Laser treatment - laser therapyThe destruction of abnormal cells by burning them away using a laser. is used to destroy abnormal cells
  • Cold coagulation - paradoxically, a heat source is used to burn away abnormal cells.

Symptoms

Cervical cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. may not cause any symptoms initially. In the later stages, symptoms may include:

  • Unusually long or heavy periods
  • Bleeding after sex
  • Pain during sex
  • Bleeding after the menopauseThe time of a woman’s life when her ovaries stop releasing an egg (ovum) on a monthly cycle.
  • Abnormal vaginal discharge
  • Pain in the back or pelvis
  • Pain when urinating
  • Blood in the urine.

Tests and diagnosis

If cervical cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. is diagnosed it is important to determine the stage of the cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body., in other words, the degree of spread to local tissues or distant organs. This may be done by physical examination and additional tests, listed below.

  • Chest X-rayA type of electromagnetic radiation used to produce images of the body.
  • Intravenous pyelogram
  • CTA scan that generates a series of cross-sectional X-ray images. scan
  • MRIAn abbreviation for magnetic resonance imaging, a technique for imaging the body that uses electromagnetic waves and a strong magnetic field. scan
  • Pelvic ultrasound
  • PET scan.

Choosing treatments

A range of therapies are available for cervical cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body., including surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapyThe use of chemical substances to treat disease, particularly cancer.. Treatment takes into account the stage of the cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body., your age, whether or not you want to have children, and your general health.

Surgery

Depending on the stage of the cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. and your particular circumstances, your cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. specialist may recommend you have one of the following operations:

  • Cone biopsyThe removal of a small sample of cells or tissue so that it may be examined under a microscope. The term may also refer to the tissue sample itself. - the removal of a cone-shaped piece of tissue from the cervixAny neck-like structure; most commonly refers to the neck of the uterus. under general anaestheticAny agent that reduces or abolishes sensation, affecting the whole body.
  • Hysterectomy - the surgical removal of the uterus and cervixAny neck-like structure; most commonly refers to the neck of the uterus., and sometimes part of the vagina and the ligament that holds the uterus in place
  • Radical trachelectomySurgical removal of the cervix of the uterus (womb). and pelvicRelating to the pelvis. lymphectomy - the removal of most of the cervixAny neck-like structure; most commonly refers to the neck of the uterus., the upper part of the vagina, the tissues around the cervixAny neck-like structure; most commonly refers to the neck of the uterus. and the pelvicRelating to the pelvis. lymph glands. The uterus is not removed
  • Exteneration surgery - the removal of other organs within the pelvis. This may include removing the bladderThe organ that stores urine. and bowel.

Radiotherapy

  • Aims to kill cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. cells or stop them dividing
  • Can be given from an external source - a machine directs high-energy X-rays into the site of the cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. from outside your body
  • Can be also be given internally, using a source of radiation close to the cervixAny neck-like structure; most commonly refers to the neck of the uterus. inside the body. This is called brachytherapyA type of radiotherapy where radioactive pellets or wires are inserted into the tumour..

Chemotherapy

  • Uses highly toxic drugs to kill the cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. cells or stop them from dividing
  • Is usually given by an injection or intravenous infusion, over a series of cycles
  • Is usually combined with radiotherapy in the treatment of cervical cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body.: this is called chemoradiotherapyTreatment of cancer with both chemotherapy and radiation therapy..

The future

Outlook

The prognosis of cervical cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body., like any cancerousMalignant, a tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. condition, depends on a number of factors. These include the grade and stage of the cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body., age, and general medical health.

Living with cervical cancer

The effects that cervical cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. can have on a woman and those around her are far-reaching.

  • As well as the side-effects from treatments such as chemotherapyThe use of chemical substances to treat disease, particularly cancer. and radiotherapy, many women must also find ways to cope with issues such as having a hysterectomyThe surgical removal of the uterus (womb). and loss of fertility
  • The support techniques used by women with this condition may include lifestyle changes such as healthy eating and adopting an exercise regime, and many find solace in counselling and support groups.

On the horizon

  • There are many new developments in screening and treatment options currently underway around the globe
  • Clinical trials invite patient participation to help with new research
  • This continuing and developing research is a crucial part in the fight against cervical cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body..