Cervical Cancer: Introduction
What is cancer?
Cancer is when cells in the body change and grow out of control. To help you understand what happens when you have cancer, let's look at how your body works normally. Your body is made up of tiny building blocks called cells. Normal cells grow when your body needs them, and die when your body does not need them any longer.
Cancer is made up of abnormal cells that grow even though your body doesn't need them. In most cancers, the abnormal cells grow to form a lump or mass called a tumor. If cancer cells are in the body long enough, they can grow into (invade) nearby areas. They can even spread to other parts of the body (metastasis).
What is cervical cancer?
Cancer that starts in cells of the cervix is called cervical cancer.
Understanding the cervix
The cervix is the lower, narrow part of the uterus. It connects the uterus to the birth canal (vagina), which leads to the outside of the body. It's located between the bladder and the rectum.
Looking for precancer
Precancerous cells on the cervix are the first sign that cervical cancer may develop. These cells can be seen on a Pap test. They are cells that look abnormal, but are not yet cancer. The appearance of these cells may be the first sign of cancer that will grow years later. Treating these precancer cells can prevent cancer from growing. Precancer cells of the cervix often don’t cause pain or other symptoms. This is why regular cervical cancer screening is so important.
Types of precancer
Squamous intraepithelial lesions (SIL) is a term that refers to abnormal changes in the cells on the surface of the cervix. These changes can be found with a Pap test and are divided into 2 categories:
Low-grade SIL. This refers to early changes in the size, shape, and number of cells that form the surface of the cervix. They may go away on their own. Or over time, they may grow larger or become more abnormal, forming a high-grade lesion. These changes may also be called mild dysplasia or cervical intraepithelial neoplasia 1 (CIN 1).
High-grade SIL. This means there are a large number of seriously changed cells that are precancer cells. Like low-grade SIL, these changes only happen in cells on the surface of the cervix. The cells often don’t become cancer for many months, probably even years. But without treatment, they will become cancer. High-grade lesions may also be called moderate or severe dysplasia, CIN 2 or 3, or carcinoma in situ.
If abnormal cells on the surface of the cervix are not found and treated, over time they can spread deeper into the cervix, or to other tissues or organs. This is then called cervical cancer, or invasive cervical cancer. Cervical cancer occurs most often in women younger than age 50. Most cervical cancer is either squamous cell carcinoma or adenocarcinoma.
The death rates for cervical cancer have dropped sharply as Pap screenings have become more prevalent. Today, most cervical cancer is found in women who have not had regular screenings, and in women who have not had any screenings.
Preventing cervical cancer
Cervical cancer is 1 of the few types of cancer that healthcare providers know how to prevent. There are 2 key ways to prevent cervical cancer:
Get regular Pap tests. These are done to find and treat any precancer cells as soon as possible, before they can change into true cancer.
Prevent precancer cells. You can do this by avoiding contact with the human papilloma virus (HPV), getting an HPV vaccine, and not smoking.
Talk with your healthcare provider
If you have questions about cervical cancer, cervical cancer screening, or how to prevent cervical cancer, talk with your healthcare provider. Your provider can help you understand more about this cancer.