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This topic talks about the testing, diagnosis, and treatment of cervical cancer. For general information about abnormal Pap test results, see the topic Abnormal Pap Test.
What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer occurs when abnormal cells on the cervixgrow out of control. The cervix is the lower part of the uterus that opens into the vagina. Cervical cancer can often be cured when it’s found early. It is usually found at a very early stage through a Pap test.
What causes cervical cancer?
Most cervical cancer is caused by a virus called human papillomavirus, or HPV. You can get HPV by having sexual contact with someone who has it. There are many types of the HPV virus. Not all types of HPV cause cervical cancer. Some of them cause genital warts, but other types may not cause any symptoms.
You can have HPV for years and not know it. It stays in your body and can lead to cervical cancer years after you were infected. This is why it is important for you to have regular Pap tests. A Pap test can find changes in cervical cells before they turn into cancer. If you treat these cell changes, you may prevent cervical cancer.
What are the symptoms?
Abnormal cervical cell changes rarely cause symptoms. But you may have symptoms if those cell changes grow into cervical cancer. Symptoms of cervical cancer may include:
- Bleeding from the vagina that is not normal, or a change in your menstrual cycle that you can't explain.
- Bleeding when something comes in contact with your cervix, such as during sex or when you put in a diaphragm.
- Pain during sex.
- Vaginal discharge that is tinged with blood.
How is cervical cancer diagnosed?
As part of your regular pelvic exam, you should have a Pap test. During a Pap test the doctor scrapes a small sample of cells from the surface of the cervix to look for cell changes. If a Pap test shows abnormal cell changes, your doctor may do other tests to look for precancerous or cancer cells on your cervix.
Your doctor may also do a Pap test and take a sample of tissue (biopsy) if you have symptoms of cervical cancer, such as bleeding after sex.
How is it treated?
Cervical cancer that is caught early can usually be cured. If the cancer is caught very early, you still may be able to have children after treatment.
The treatment for most stages of cervical cancer removes the cancer and makes you unable to have children. These treatments include:
- A hysterectomy and removal of pelvic lymph nodes with or without removal of both ovaries and fallopian tubes.
- Radiation therapy.
Depending on how much the cancer has grown, you may have one or more treatments. And you may have a combination of treatments.
It’s common to feel scared, sad, or angry after finding out that you have cervical cancer. Talking to others who have had the disease may help you feel better. Ask your doctor about support groups in your area. You can also find people online who will share their experiences with you.
Can cervical cancer be prevented?
The Pap test is the best way to find cervical cell changes that can lead to cervical cancer. Regular Pap tests almost always show these cell changes before they turn into cancer. It is important to follow up with your doctor after any abnormal Pap test result to treat abnormal cell changes. This may help prevent cervical cancer.
A vaccine called Gardasil protects against four types of HPV, which together cause most cases of cervical cancer and genital warts. You get three shots over 6 months. The vaccine is recommended for girls 11 to 12 years old. It is also recommended for females 13 to 26 years old who did not get the vaccine when they were younger.
The virus that causes cervical cancer is spread through sexual contact. The best way to avoid getting a sexually transmitted disease is to not have sex. If you do have sex, practice safer sex, such as using condoms and limiting the number of sex partners you have.