What is cervical cancer?

January is cervical cancer awareness month and we’d like to bring awareness to this type of cancer and how you can prevent it.

cervical cancer, awarenessCervical cancer was once the common cause of cancer death among American women. Over the last thirty years, however, the cervical cancer death rates have decreased by more than 50% (Source: American Cancer Society). The primary reason for this decrease can be attributed to the increased use of Pap smears to check for cervical cancer.

Before we go into what causes cervical cancer, it is important to know what the cervix is and how does it relate to our overall health. The cervix is part of the female reproductive system that forms a narrow passageway at the lower end of the uterus (the womb). It connects the uterus to the vagina. It is primarily responsible for making cervical mucus that helps the sperm move from the vagina into the uterus. Ordinarily the cervix stays closed, but during pregnancy it opens allowing the baby to pass through the birth canal. During the menstrual period, it allows for the flow of blood from the uterus to the vagina.

How does cervical cancer develop?

Cervical cancer starts when cells begin to grow out of control on the surface of the cervix. These cancerous cells can grow throughout the cervix and also have the ability to spread and invade other neighboring organs, and enter the lymphatic system to other parts of the body.

What causes cervical cancer?

One of the most common causes of cervical cancer is the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). About 90% of the cervical cancers are caused by HPV.

Some other reasons for developing cervical cancer include smoking, having human immunodeficiency virus (virus that causes AIDS), being on immunosuppressants, a diet low in fruits and vegetables, being overweight, long term use of oral contraceptives, and having a family history of cervical cancer. Also, women whose mothers took a drug called diethylstilbestrol (DES) while they were pregnant, are more prone to developing a specific type of cervical cancer.

What are the stages of cervical cancer?

The stages of cancer are generally numbered from stage 0 to IV, where ‘0’ refers to pre-cancerous or non-invasive, and ‘IV’ refers to tumor which has spread throughout the body.

The stages of cervical cancer are:

  • Stage 0: Abnormal cells are found in the innermost lining of the cervix. These cells have the potential to become cancerous and can spread to nearby tissues.
  • Stage I: Cancer is found in the cervix only. Stage I cancer is divided into IA and IB, based on the amount of cancer found.
  • Stage II: Cancer has spread beyond the uterus, but not onto the pelvic walls or to the lower third of the vagina. Stage II is further divided until Stage IIA and IIB, based on how far the cancer has spread.
  • Stage III: Here, cancer has spread to the lower third of the vagina, and/or onto the pelvic wall. At this stage, the cancer has the potential to cause kidney problems. Once again, stage III is divided into IIIA and IIIB, depending on how far the cancer has spread.
  • Stage IV: At this point, the cancer has spread beyond the pelvis to nearby organs, such as the bladder or the rectum. Stage IV cancer also signifies that the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, such as the liver, lungs. Stage IV is also divided into Stage IVA and IVB.

How can cervical cancer be prevented?

With the advances in technology and screening, cervical cancers can be prevented by getting a Pap test. A pap test can detect any precancerous changes in the cells of the cervix before they develop into cancer. Early detection using a pap test leads to a better chance of survival.

Guidelines published in 2012 by the American Cancer Society recommend that women have their first Pap test at the age of 21. The guidelines also recommend women between the ages of 21 through 29 to be screened for a Pap test every three years. For the women between the ages of 30 and 65, screening should be done every five years.

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Medically reviewed on Jan 5 2017