What is cervical cancer?
- The cervix is the lower part of the womb (uterus).
- It is located at the top of the birth canal (vagina).
- When cancer starts on the cervix, it is called cervical (SER-vih-kul) cancer.
- Cells do not suddenly change into cancer.
- Precancer cells are cells that are not normal.
- They are not cancer but can turn into cancer if not treated.
What causes cervical cancer?
- Cervical cancer is caused by HPV, or human papillomavirus.
- HPV is a virus that is spread during sexual contact.
- Most adults have HPV infections at some time during their lives.
- Usually the infection clears up on its own.
- There are more than 100 different types of HPV, and only a few cause cancer.
- A person who has a type of HPV that causes cancer and is not treated for many years could get cancer.
- A vaccine (shot) is available to prevent HPV infection.
What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?
- Cervical cancer usually does not cause symptoms, but when it does, symptoms may include:
- Bleeding from the vagina when a woman doesn't expect it, such as between periods.
- Heavy periods.
- Pain during sex.
- Discharge from vagina.
- Many things other than cancer can cause these symptoms. It's important to check with a health care provider about any concerns.
- Most of the time, cervical cancer causes no symptoms and is found on a Pap test.
- The Pap test checks for cervical cancer or precancer cells.
- It is often part of regular pelvic exam.
Are there tests for cervical cancer?
- Two tests are often done to check for cervical cancer or precancer.
- Pap test-during a pelvic exam, the doctor or nurse takes a few cells from the cervix for testing.
- HPV test-a blood test that checks for HPV.
- HPV infection can cause Pap tests that are not normal. The HPV test can help tell if an abnormal Pap test could be due to HPV infection.
- A woman should get her first Pap test at age 21.
- After the first test, she should have a Pap test every 1 to 3 years.
- Women who are 30 or older sometimes have an HPV test done along with the Pap test.
What if the results are not normal?
- When a Pap or HPV test is not normal, it usually does not mean the woman has cancer.
- The tests might not be normal because of:
- A precancer.
- A lab error in looking at the cells from the Pap test.
- It is important to find and treat precancers.
- Treatment can stop precancer from becoming cancer.
- Infection can be treated with medication.
- The health care provider may suggest having the test again or getting other tests.
- Other tests can include:
- Colposcopy-A health care provider uses a tool with a light and magnifying glass to look closely at the cervix for cells that are not normal. If there are abnormal cells, the health care provider will probably suggest a biopsy.
- Biopsy-A health care provider takes a small piece of tissue from the cervix. The tissue is sent to a lab for study.