What is cervical cancer

Cervical cancer refers to the abnormal, uncontrolled growth of cells in the cervix, the lower part of the uterus (womb) where it opens into the vagina.

When the cells of the cervix are infected with HPV, they may become abnormal and start to grow in an uncontrolled way.

Types of cervical cancer

The two main types of cervical cancer are:

  • squamous cell cancer
  • glandular cell cancer.

Squamous cell cancer is the most common form of cervical cancer and is found in about 80 percent of cases.

Abnormal changes are found in the squamous cells of the transformation zone, where the vagina meets the cervix. (See figure below)

Glandular cell cancer is found in the glandular cells, sometimes called columnar cells or endocervical cells, which line the cervical canal (See figure below) and is found in about 15 percent of cases.

Cervical cancer usually grows very slowly, taking 10 or more years to develop. It starts when some cells on the surface of the cervix become abnormal.

These abnormal pre-cancerous cells may return to normal by themselves. In a small number of cases, they may develop into cancer if not treated.

It is impossible to tell which abnormal pre-cancerous cells will return to normal and which may become cancer. This is why all abnormal cells must be followed up.

If women have regular smear tests, there is a high chance that any abnormal pre-cancerous cells will be found and treated long before they develop into cancer.

Diagram of the uterus, showing the cervix

Symptoms of cervical cancer

Abnormal cell changes do not usually cause any symptoms and may be picked up only when a woman has a cervical smear test. Symptoms may not appear until abnormal cells become cancer. See your doctor or nurse if you have:

  • bleeding or spotting between menstrual periods
  • bleeding or spotting after sexual intercourse
  • bleeding or spotting after menstrual periods have stopped (after menopause)
  • unusual discharge from your vagina
  • persistent pain in your pelvis
  • pain during sexual intercourse.

These symptoms can happen for several reasons and rarely mean that you have cervical cancer. However, they should be checked out.

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Page last updated: 27 November 2014
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