Cervical Cancer: Introduction

What is cancer?

Cancer starts when cells in the body change and grow out of control. To help you understand what happens when you have cancer, let's look at how your body works normally. Your body is made up of tiny building blocks called cells. Normal cells grow when your body needs them, and they die when your body doesn't need them any longer.

Cancer is made up of abnormal cells that grow even though your body doesn't need them. In most cancers, the abnormal cells grow to form a lump or mass called a tumor. If cancer cells are in the body long enough, they can grow into (invade) nearby areas. They can even spread to other parts of the body (metastasis).

What is cervical cancer?

Cancer that starts in cells of the cervix is called cervical cancer.

Understanding the cervix

The cervix is the lower, narrow part of the uterus. It connects the uterus to the birth canal (vagina), which leads to the outside of the body. It's between the bladder and the rectum.

Front view of woman's pelvis showing cross section of uterus, cervix, and vagina. Inset shows closeup of cervix.

Looking for precancer

Precancer cells on the cervix are the first sign that cervical cancer may develop. These cells can be seen on a Pap test. They're cells that look abnormal, but they are not yet cancer. Finding these cells may be the first sign of cancer that will grow years later. Treating these precancer cells can prevent cancer from forming. Precancer cells of the cervix seldom cause pain or other symptoms. This is why regular cervical cancer screening with Pap tests is so important.

Types of precancer

Squamous intraepithelial lesion (SIL), dysplasia, and cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN) are terms that refer to abnormal changes in the cells on the surface of the cervix. These changes can be found with a Pap test.

SIL is divided into 2 categories:

  • Low-grade SIL. This refers to early changes in the size, shape, and number of cells that form the surface of the cervix. The changes may go away on their own over time. Or they may grow larger or become more abnormal, forming a high-grade lesion. These changes may also be called mild dysplasia or CIN 1.

  • High-grade SIL. This means there are a large number of seriously changed cells that are precancer cells. Like low-grade SIL, these changes only happen in cells on the surface of the cervix. The cells often don’t become cancer for many months, or even many years. But without treatment, they will become cancer. High-grade SIL may also be called moderate or severe dysplasia, CIN 2 or 3, or carcinoma in situ.

If abnormal cells on the surface of the cervix are not found and treated, over time they can spread deeper into the cervix or spread to other tissues or organs. This is then called cervical cancer, or invasive cervical cancer. Cervical cancer occurs most often in women younger than age 50. Most cervical cancers are either squamous cell carcinomas or adenocarcinomas.

The death rate for cervical cancer has dropped sharply as Pap screenings have become more prevalent. Today, most cervical cancer is usually found in women who have not had regular screenings, and in women who have not had any screenings.

Preventing cervical cancer

Cervical cancer is 1 of the few kinds of cancer that healthcare providers know how to prevent. There are 2 key ways to prevent cervical cancer:

  • Get regular Pap tests. These are done to find and treat any precancer cells as soon as possible, before they can change into true cancer.

  • Prevent precancer cells. You can do this by preventing infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV), getting an HPV vaccine, and not smoking.

Talk with your healthcare provider

If you have questions about cervical cancer, cervical cancer screening, or ways to prevent cervical cancer, talk with your healthcare provider. Your provider can help you understand more about this cancer.

Online Medical Reviewer: Donna Freeborn PhD CNM FNP
Online Medical Reviewer: Howard Goodman MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Jessica Gotwals RN BSN MPH
Date Last Reviewed: 3/1/2023
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