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What is Cervical Cancer?

Cervical cancer is cancer of the cervix, which is the mouth of the uterus. The tumors may appear at the entrance to the womb.

Most cervical cancer is caused by a longstanding infection with a family of viruses called human papillomaviruses (HPV). In most cases, these viruses spread by infecting skin cells and cells of the mucus membranes. People pass the virus from one to another by sexual contact or other direct contact with genitals. At one time, scientists thought you could get HPV from bodily fluids, but nowadays, doctors don’t think HPV spreads easily through semen, saliva, or blood.

In some rare cases, cervical cancer can develop from cancer that started in another area of the body — this is known as metastatic cancer.

What are risk factors and symptoms of cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer usually takes many years to develop because it takes a very long time for abnormal cells in the cervix to turn into cancer. If you have cervical cancer, you may notice unusual bleeding or discharge coming out of your vagina. For example, blood between periods—or even after menopause. You might even find yourself bleeding after sex. Other signs and symptoms of cervical cancer include:

  • Foul-smelling discharge form the vagina
  • Feeling tired
  • Pain when peeing
  • Pain in the pelvis and abdomen
  • Weight loss

Certain lifestyle habits or certain health conditions increases your risk for cervical cancer. For example, women who smoke are more likely to get cervical cancer. Also, conditions that weaken the immune system, such as AIDS and medications to keep your body from rejecting an organ transplant, can increase your risk for cervical cancer. Sexual activity can put you at risk for cervical cancer, too, because HPV can be spread by having sex.

How is cervical cancer screened and treated?

Screening plays an important role in early detection of cervical cancer. The screening test is called a Pap smear (short for Papanicolaou, the last name of the physician who created the test). During this test, a doctor or other qualified healthcare professional will insert a device into the cervix that allows them to collect small samples of the tissue and cells that line the cervix. Those cells will be sent to a lab for testing. Women can also be screened for certain human papillomaviruses. Based on the results of these tests, your doctor may decide to run additional tests.

Depending on the location of your cancer and how many tumors you have, your doctor may recommend a hysterectomy to prevent tumors from spreading to the tissue that surrounds them. The procedure may also involve removing the lymph nodes located near the uterus, too. Regardless of whether you have surgery, your doctor might still encourage you to receive radiotherapy.