What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is a malignant tumour that starts in the cells of the cervix. Malignant means that it can spread, or metastasize, to other parts of the body.
The cervix is part of a woman’s reproductive system. It is the narrow lower part of the uterus, or womb. It is the passageway that connects the uterus to the vagina.
Cells in the cervix sometimes change and no longer grow or behave normally. These changes may lead to benign tumours such as polyps or fibroids, which are not cancer.
When cells of the cervix start to change and become abnormal, it is called dysplasia of the cervix, or cervical dysplasia. Dysplasia is a precancerous condition. This means that the cells are not yet cancer but there is a higher chance these abnormal changes will become cervical cancer.
Dysplasia of the cervix is a common precancerous condition that can develop into cancer if it isn’t treated. Most women with dysplasia are successfully treated and do not develop cancer. But in some cases, changes to cervical cells can cause cancer.
Most often, cervical cancer starts in flat, thin cells called squamous cells. These cells cover the surface of the cervix and are in the lining of the cervix.
This type of cancer is called squamous cell carcinoma of the cervix. Cancer can also start in glandular cells, which make mucus. These cells line the inside of the cervix. This type of cancer is called adenocarcinoma of the cervix.
Rare types of cervical cancer can also develop. These include adenosquamous carcinoma, which is also called mixed carcinoma, and glassy cell carcinoma.
Signs and symptoms of cervical cancer
Women with early cervical cancers and pre-cancers usually have no symptoms. Symptoms often do not begin until a pre-cancer becomes a true invasive cancer and grows into nearby tissue. When this happens, the most common symptoms are:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding, such as bleeding after sex (vaginal intercourse), bleeding after menopause, bleeding and spotting between periods, and having longer or heavier (menstrual) periods than usual. Bleeding after douching, or after a pelvic exam is a common symptom of cervical cancer but not pre-cancer.
- An unusual discharge from the vagina − the discharge may contain some blood and may occur between your periods or after menopause.
- Pain during sex (vaginal intercourse).
These signs and symptoms can also be caused by conditions other than cervical cancer. For example, an infection can cause pain or bleeding. Still, if you have any of these problems, you should see your health care professional right away − even if you have been getting regular Pap tests. If it is an infection, it will need to be treated. If it’s cancer, ignoring symptoms might allow it to progress to a more advanced stage and lower your chance for effective treatment.
Even better, don’t wait for symptoms to appear. Be screened regularly.
Can cervical cancer be prevented?
Since the most common form of cervical cancer starts with pre-cancerous changes, there are 2 ways to stop this disease from developing. One way is to find and treat pre-cancers before they become true cancers, and the other is to prevent the pre-cancers in the first place.
Treating cervical cancer
If cervical cancer is diagnosed at an early stage, it’s usually possible to treat it using surgery. In some cases it’s possible to leave the womb in place, but it may need to be removed. The surgical procedure used to remove the womb is called a hysterectomy.
Radiotherapy is an alternative to surgery for some women with early stage cervical cancer. In some cases it is used alongside surgery.
More advanced cases of cervical cancer are usually treated using a combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
Some of the treatments used can have significant and long-lasting side effects, including early menopause and infertility.
Many women with cervical cancer will have complications. Complications can arise as a direct result of the cancer or as a side effect of treatments such as radiotherapy, surgery and chemotherapy.
Complications associated with cervical cancer can range from the relatively minor, such as minor bleeding from the vagina or having to urinate frequently, to life-threatening, such as severe bleeding or kidney failure.