The cervix is the lowest part of the uterus (womb) and connects it to the upper vaginal canal. Cancers of the cervix generally develop from the lowest portion where the uterus and the vaginal canal meet. Cancers are either described as squamous, which are similar to skin cells, or glandular (adenocarcinoma), which are similar to mucus secreting cells of the gastrointestinal tract. Cervical cancers do not develop quickly from normal cervical cells, but gradually go through a progression from a precancerous state to cancer, a process which occurs as a result of exposure to the human papillomavirus (HPV).
Overview and Symptoms
Cervical cancer symptoms may include:
- Vaginal bleeding between periods, after sexual intercourse or after menopause
- Unusual vaginal discharge, which may be watery, pink or foul-smelling
- Pelvic pain during intercourse or at other times
Cervical cancer screening and diagnostic tests include:
- Pap test – a sampling of the cells of the cervix using a brush or small, narrow scraping paddle. Sampling does not harm the cervix and for women having a pelvic exam the sampling is generally not a painful process and is well tolerated.
- Biopsy – If pap test results are abnormal, your doctor will want to take a biopsy. This may be a punch biopsy, which involves using a sharp tool to pinch off small samples of cervical tissue. Or your doctor may use endocervical curettage, which uses a small instrument to scrape a tissue sample from the cervix. Either way, the tissue sample will be reviewed by a pathologist to determine whether it is cervical cancer.
Treatment options for cervical cancer vary depending on the stage of disease – the size of the tumors, how deep it has grown into the cervix, and how far it has spread beyond the cervix. However, it generally will include a combination of:
- Surgery – to remove the cancerous growth
- Radiation therapy – to shrink the tumors
- Chemotherapy – to shrink the tumors
- Targeted therapy – medications that specifically target the cervical cancer tumors
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