The cervix is part of a woman’s reproductive system. It is in the pelvis. The cervix is the lower, narrow part of the uterus (womb).
The cervix is a passageway:
The cervix connects the uterus to the vagina. During a menstrual period, blood flows from the uterus through the cervix into the vagina. The vagina leads to the outside of the body.
The cervix makes mucus. During sex, mucus helps sperm move from the vagina through the cervix into the uterus.
During pregnancy, the cervix is tightly closed to help keep the baby inside the uterus. During childbirth, the cervix opens to allow the baby to pass through the vagina.
What is cancer?
Cancer begins in cells, the building blocks that make up tissues. Tissues make up the cervix and other organs of the body.
Normal cervical cells grow and divide to form new cells, as the body needs them. When normal cells grow old or get damaged, they die, and new cells take their place.
Sometimes, this process goes wrong. New cells form when the body does not need them, and old or damaged cells do not die, as they should. The buildup of extra cells often forms a mass of tissue called a growth or tumor.
Growths on the cervix can be benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancer).
Cervical cancer occurs when abnormal cells on the cervix 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 is 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.
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.
When you get a diagnosis of cervical cancer, it is natural to wonder what may have caused the disease. Doctors usually can’t explain why one woman develops cervical cancer and another doesn’t.
However, we do know that a woman with certain risk factors may be more likely than other women to develop cervical cancer. A risk factor is something that may increase the chance of developing a disease.
Studies have found that infection with the virus called HPV is the cause of almost all cervical cancers. More than half of women by the age of 50 have been exposed to HPV, but most HPV infections clear up on their own. An HPV infection with a high-risk type of HPV that doesn’t go away can cause cervical cancer in some women.
Other risk factors, such as smoking, can act to increase the risk of cervical cancer among women infect with HPV even more.
A woman’s risk of cervical cancer can be reduced by getting regular cervical cancer screening tests. If abnormal cervical cell changes are found early, cancer can be prevented by removing or killing the changed cells before they become cancer cells.
Another way a woman can reduce her risk of cervical cancer is by getting an HPV vaccine before becoming sexually active (between the ages of 9 and 26). Even women who get an HPV vaccine need regular cervical cancer screening tests. Vaccines reduce a person’srisk of getting an infection, but do not prevent such infections in every vaccinated person.
Early cervical cancers usually don’t cause symptoms. When the cancer grows larger, women may notice abnormal vaginal bleeding:
Bleeding that occurs between regular menstrual periods, bleeding after sexual intercourse, douching, or a pelvic exam, menstrual periods that last longer and are heavier than before, and bleeding after going through menopause.
Women may also notice increased vaginal discharge, pelvic pain, and pain during sex.
Cervical cancer, infections, or other health problems may cause these symptoms. A woman with any of these symptoms should tell her doctor so that problems can be diagnosed and treated as early as possible.
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 is why it is 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 is 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.