What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is a disease that affects women. The cancer cells form on a woman's cervix, which is the bottom part of her uterus. The cells change gradually when the cancer forms. This can make it easier for doctors to find cervical cancer in its early stages.

Types of cervical cancer

The main types of cervical cancer, according to the American Cancer Society, are:

  • Adenocarcinomas
  • Mixed carcinomas (extremely rare)
  • Squamous cell carcinomas (nine out of 10 cases)

In other cases, doctors can find other types of cancers, such as melanoma or sarcoma, in a woman's cervix. These cancers usually form in other areas of the body and move to the cervix.

Causes of cervical cancer

Just like with other types of cancer, doctors still don't know the exact cause of cervical cancer. Doctors can't tell why one woman develops cervical cancer and another doesn’t.

Problems with genes can play a major role in cervical cancer. A mutation, or change in the genes in a cell, causes cells to grow out of control. This growth forms tumors, leading to cervical cancer.

Risks factors for cervical cancer

Doctors may not know what causes cervical cancer, but they do know risk factors that increase a woman's chances of developing the disease.

HPV is a common disease that affects many men and women. Not every woman who has HPV develops cervical cancer, but scientists have discovered a link between the two diseases. Having many sexual partners, having sex at an early age, getting sexually transmitted infections and having a weak immune system can increase your chances of getting HPV. This in turn increases your chances of developing cervical cancer.

Smoking is a risk factor linked with squamous cell cervical cancer.

Symptoms of cervical cancer

Cervical cancer develops so slowly that it often shows no symptoms in the early stages. If you begin seeing symptoms, that usually means the cancer has spread to other tissues or is in its advanced stages.

Symptoms of advanced cervical cancer include:

  • Pain during sex
  • Bleeding after sex
  • Spotting between periods
  • Longer periods than normal
  • Any other unusual vaginal bleeding
  • Unusual discharge from the vagina

Diagnosis of cervical cancer

Doctors can usually detect cervical cancer in its early stages. At your yearly gynecology exam, your doctor performs a Pap test. This test looks for abnormal cells on your cervix. Once your doctor has the results from that test, they can determine if you need more tests to fully diagnose cervical cancer.

A colposcopy is the next step. Doctors use an instrument with magnifying glasses to look at your cervix closely. The doctor can also remove any cells that look abnormal and send them off for testing. Other tests and imaging of the surrounding tissues and organs help doctors determine if the cervical cancer affects other parts of your body.

Treatment for cervical cancer

The most common — and sometimes the only — treatment option for cervical cancer is a simple hysterectomy. This is a surgery that removes your uterus and cervix along with the cancer cells. If the cancer has spread, you may need a radical hysterectomy. This surgery removes your uterus, cervix, part of your vagina and nearby lymph nodes. Surgery can cure the cancer and often keep the cancer from coming back.

Other treatment options include chemotherapy and radiation therapy or a combination of the two. Both options help to shrink the tumors and stop the spread of the cancer.

Recovery from cervical cancer

Your recovery is the primary goal — for you and your doctors. When doctors find cervical cancer in the early stages and treat it soon after, the five-year survival rate for stage 0 and stage 1A cervical cancer is 93%, according to the American Cancer Society.

If a hysterectomy was part of your treatment, you can expect to stay in the hospital for up to five days. You should take it easy and avoid heavy lifting and other strenuous activities for the next several weeks. Vaginal discharge, discomfort and problems using the bathroom are common during this time. You can expect to fully recover in six to eight weeks.

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