The cervix is the lowest part of the uterus, opening at the top of the vagina during birth. Cervical cancer is caused when the cells in the cervix begin to change and grow. This is also called dysplasia. The cells can become malignant and the cancer can spread to the uterus and surrounding organs.
The highest risk factor for developing cervical cancer is carrying the human papillomavirus (HPV). Not all women carrying the virus will develop cervical cancer, but it is important for women who know they carry the virus to have an annual Pap smear to check for changes in cervical cells.
Symptoms of Cervical Cancer
There are not usually noticeable symptoms of cervical cancer, making it critical for women to have yearly Pap smears to check for abnormal cells. However, some women do experience the following symptoms:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding
- Unusual vaginal discharge, that may include bloody streaked mucous
- Pain in the pelvis
- Pain during sexual intercourse
- These symptoms can be caused by cancer or other conditions. Typically these symptoms are not signs of cancer, but in the interest of their best health, women should seek the guidance of an experienced gynecologist. If there is a concern, or a biopsy comes back with possible signs of cancer, you will be referred to a gynecological oncologist.
When evaluated for cervical cancer, your doctor will take a complete medical and family history as well as perform a pelvic exam to examine the organs of the female reproductive tract for any changes in size or shape. The following tests may be ordered by your doctor to fully evaluate you for cervical cancer:
- Pap Smear -- This test includes collecting cells from the cervix and upper vagina. An experienced pathologist will then check the cells for any sign of malignancy.
- Colposcopy -- This procedure includes examining the vagina and cervix for abnormal growths. A colposcope (a lighted, magnifying instrument) is used and samples from the area are taken using a spoon-shaped instrument, called a curette.
- Biopsy -- In this procedure, which can be done in your doctor's office, your doctor will remove a sample of tissue from the cervix, and possibly the vagina. In some cases, a cone biopsy will be performed, where a cone-shaped section of tissue will be removed from the cervix. A pathologist will carefully examine the sample of tissue to check for possibly malignancies and other conditions.
If cancer is found in the biopsy, then your gynecologic oncologist will create an individualized treatment plan for you. Treatment for cervical cancer may include:
- Radiation Therapy