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Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School
Cervical Cancer
  • What Is It?
  • Symptoms
  • Diagnosis
  • Expected Duration
  • Prevention
  • Treatment
  • When To Call A Professional
  • Prognosis
  • Additional Info
  • What Is It?

    The cervix is a small, donut-shaped structure, located at the top of the vagina. It is the entrance to the uterus. Cervical cancer begins with abnormal, microscopic changes in cells in the outer layer of the cervix, called the epithelium. This stage is called dysplasia. If changes continue to occur, cells may become cancerous and grow out of control.

    Cervical cancer tends to grow slowly. It may remain in an early stage, confined to the cervical covering, for two to 10 years. Once cancer moves beyond this layer, however, it invades nearby tissue, including the main body of the uterus, the vagina, bladder and rectum.

    The cause of cervical cancer is unknown, but infection with certain types of human papilloma virus (HPV) significantly increases a woman's risk of developing cervical cancer. Cigarette smoking also may contribute to cervical cancer.


    In its early stages, cervical cancer does not cause any symptoms. Once it begins to spread, it may cause a blood-tinged or discolored vaginal discharge that does not itch, spotting after intercourse, or abnormal bleeding. These symptoms, however, aren't unique to cervical cancer and may occur with many disorders of the female reproductive tract.

    More advanced stages of cervical cancer can cause pelvic pain, appetite loss, weight loss and anemia.


    The diagnosis of cervical cancer usually begins with a pelvic exam. The doctor uses a speculum, an instrument that holds the walls of the vagina open to make it easier to inspect your cervix and vagina, and do a Pap test. The Pap test is a quick, painless procedure in which the doctor gently brushes the surface lining and the canal of your cervix to obtain a sample of mucus and cells. The cells are then sent to a laboratory for examination. If the Pap test indicates dysplasia (irregularly shaped cells) or possibly cancerous cells, a gynecologist will examine your cervix and vagina with a special instrument called a colposcope and will do a biopsy to further examine the abnormal cells. A colposcope contains a magnifying lens that makes the cervix appear larger. In a biopsy, a small piece of tissue is removed from the cervix so it can be examined in a laboratory. A vinegar solution is applied to the cervix and vagina so that abnormal areas turn white temporarily. This helps the gynecologist determine where to remove tissue for the biopsy.

    Another test called endocervical curettage or endocervical scraping also may be done. A thin instrument is used to take a scraping of the cells inside the inner opening of the cervix. These are cells that may be hidden from view during colposcopy. A local anesthetic is used to numb the cervix during this and other types of biopsies.

    Expected Duration

    Cervical cancer is a slower growing cancer and can take years to invade nearby tissues. However, it will continue to grow until it is treated.


    To prevent this disease, you should have regular pelvic exams and Pap tests — at least once a year if you are 18 or older or if you are under 18 and sexually active. If your first three Pap smear tests are normal, discuss with your doctor whether you can have Pap smears less frequently.

    Other steps to help prevent cervical cancer include the following:

    Detecting the disease early dramatically increases your chances of survival. If cervical cancer is discovered and treated early, 99 women out of 100 survive the disease. If the disease isn't diagnosed until it reaches the most advanced stage, only seven women in 100 will survive.

    Because of Pap-smear testing, cervical cancer is four more times likely to be diagnosed at the noninvasive stage than at the invasive stage. From 1955 to 1992, increased Pap-smear testing led to a drop of almost 75 percent in the death rate from cervical cancer.


    How far the cancer has spread is called the cancer's stage. The treatment depends on the stage.

    When recommending treatments for Stage 0 or Stage I cancer, your doctor also will consider whether you want to have children. When Stage 0 or Stage I cervical cancer is diagnosed during pregnancy, it may be possible to postpone treatment until after delivery. A woman with Stage I cancer who still wants to have children usually is treated with one of the following:

    After these procedures, a Pap test should be done about every four months for one year and every six months for a second year to check for abnormal cells.

    For women who don't plan to become pregnant, the treatment for minimally invasive cancers in Stage I usually is a total hysterectomy (removal of uterus and cervix). This procedure removes the cancer and prevents it from coming back. This leaves the ovaries in place. Larger stage I and stage II cancers require either a radical hysterectomy (removal of the uterus, cervix, as well as the ovaries, fallopian tubes and regional lymph nodes in the pelvis) or radiation therapy along with chemotherapy. The choice between surgery and radiation therapy depends in part on the age and health of the woman and also a woman's concerns about the potential side effects or complications.

    Stage III and stage IV cancer must be treated with radiation. Studies have shown that combining chemotherapy with radiation therapy helps to improve survival in these later stages.

    When To Call A Professional

    Report any of the following symptoms to your doctor:

    Remember, though, that these symptoms don't necessarily mean that you have cancer. For women with advanced cervical cancer, significant vaginal bleeding could indicate that the cancer has broken into nearby blood vessels, such as an artery. This requires immediate medical attention at the hospital.


    Survival depends on the stage at which the cancer is discovered and treated. The percentage of patients who survive five years or more at each stage is:

    Additional Info

    National Cancer Institute (NCI)
    Building 31
    Room 10A03
    31 Center Dr., MSC 2580
    Bethesda, MD 20892-2580
    Phone: (301) 435-3848
    Toll-Free: (800) 422-6237

    American Cancer Society (ACS)
    1599 Clifton Rd., NE
    Atlanta, GA 30329-4251
    Toll-Free: (800) 227-2345

    Cancer Research Institute
    681 Fifth Ave.
    New York, NY 10022-4209
    Toll-Free: (800) 992-2623
    Fax: (212) 832-9376

    Last updated July 23, 2003