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Quick Facts

Cervical Cancer

By The Manual's Editorial Staff,

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What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is cancer of the cervix. The cervix is the lower part of (opening to) your uterus (womb). It connects your uterus with your vagina.

  • Cervical cancer is usually caused by HPV (human papillomavirus) infection, a common virus you can get from having unprotected sex

  • You may have no symptoms until the cancer has grown or spread

  • Cervical cancer can spread to other organs near your cervix or throughout your body

  • Treatment can include surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy

  • Doctors can detect cervical cancer very early with a Pap test

  • The HPV vaccine prevents cervical cancer

Internal Female Genital Organs

What causes cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is most commonly caused by HPV (human papillomavirus). You can get from HPV having unprotected sex. HPV also causes genital warts.

What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?

Early cervical cancer often has no symptoms.

The first symptom is usually:

  • Abnormal bleeding from your vagina, often after sex

Symptoms of later cervical cancer include:

  • More bleeding during periods or bleeding between periods

  • Bad-smelling discharge (fluid) from your vagina

  • Pain in your pelvic area (area below your belly and between your hips)

  • Lower back pain

Without treatment, cervical cancer can cause death.

How can doctors tell if I have cervical cancer?

Doctors can find cervical cancer and cervical dysplasia (pre-cancer growths) with a Pap test. A Pap test is done during a pelvic exam.

  • During a pelvic exam, your doctor looks inside your vagina, holding it open with a small instrument called a speculum

  • For a Pap test, your doctor takes some cells from your cervix using a swab

  • The cells are examined under a microscope

If your cells look abnormal, doctors take out a small piece of your cervix to look at under a microscope (biopsy).

If you have cervical cancer, doctors will see how large the cancer is and how far it has spread using tests like:

  • Computed tomography (CT scan)—an imaging test that takes x-rays from many angles to create a detailed picture of the inside of your body

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)—an imaging test that uses a strong magnetic field to create a detailed picture of the inside of your body

How do doctors treat cervical cancer?

Treatment can include:

Early cancer that hasn't spread beyond the surface of your cervix can be taken out using surgery. Because doctors need to remove only a piece of your cervix, they do the surgery through your vagina. Procedures include:

  • LEEP—a thin wire loop used with electricity to remove the cancer

  • A laser—this procedure can be done in your doctor's office using numbing medicine around the abnormal tissue areas first

  • A knife—this surgery is done in the hospital while you're asleep

These surgeries don't affect your ability to get pregnant. However, you will have to deliver your babies by C-section.

More advanced cancer that hasn't spread far may be treated with a hysterectomy. In a hysterectomy, the doctor takes out your uterus and sometimes nearby tissue. Sometimes, doctors will do radiation therapy after the hysterectomy. If the cancer has spread, doctors may just give you radiation therapy along with chemotherapy. After radiation and chemotherapy, doctors sometimes do surgery to take out cancer that remains.

How can I prevent cervical cancer?

You can find cervical cancer before it can grow or spread by getting regular Pap tests. Doctors recommend:

  • From ages 21 to 30, getting Pap tests every other year

  • At age 30, both a Pap test and HPV test

  • Until you're age 65, Pap tests every 3 to 5 years if your tests were normal at age 30

  • Women who had cervical cancer or an abnormal Pap test should have a Pap test at least once a year

You can prevent cervical cancer by getting the HPV vaccine (shot) when you're young.

  • The vaccine is given in 3 doses

  • Doctors recommend both girls and boys get the vaccine at age 11 or 12

If you didn't get the vaccine when you were 11 or 12, doctors may give it to you up until you're 27.

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