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Information:  Cervical cancer

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Cervical cancer is cancer that starts in a woman's cervix. The cervix is the lower, thin opening of the uterus that connects the vagina (or birth canal) to the uterus. Cervical cancer grows slowly over time and usually starts with abnormal changes to the cells on the cervix, known as dysplasia.

Who gets cervical cancer?

Any woman can get cervical cancer. It occurs most often in women over 30 years old. Women who are not screened or have not been screened in a long time could have cervical cancer and not know it. Cervical cancer is most often found in women who have not had a Pap test in more than five years or have never had a Pap test. The Pap test is the main screening test for cervical cancer; Pap tests can identify cells on the cervix that may become cancerous.

What causes cervical cancer?

Nearly all cervical cancer is caused the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections in the United States; it is estimated that more than half of adults will get HPV. There are 120 different types of HPV, over 30 of which can infect the genitals. Genital types of HPV are either low-risk or high-risk based on how likely it is that they may cause cervical or other gynecological cancers; HPV types 16 and 18 cause 70% of cervical cancer cases.

Most often HPV will go away on its own, but if it does not, it could cause cervical cancer. Many women will have an HPV infection at some point in their lives, but few will get cervical cancer. In addition to HPV infection, there are other factors that can increase the chances of getting cervical cancer. These include:

  • Not having regular Pap tests
  • Not following up with your health care provider if you have had a Pap test result that is not normal
  • Having HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, or another condition that makes it hard for your body to fight off health problems
  • Smoking

For more information about HPV and the HPV vaccine visit

What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?

Early on, there are usually no symptoms. The longer a person has cervical cancer without treatment, the more likely they will have symptoms. Some of the symptoms of advanced cervical cancer can include:

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding
  • Unusually heavy vaginal discharge
  • Painful intercourse
  • Painful urination
  • Bleeding after intercourse, between periods or after a pelvic exam

If you have any of these symptoms, you should talk to your health care provider. These symptoms may be caused by something else; the only way to know for sure is to see your health care provider.

Why should I be screened for cervical cancer?

Screening tests can prevent cervical cancer or find it early, when it is easily treated. In the United States, the Pap test has reduced cervical cancer rates by more than 70%.

What screening tests are done for cervical cancer?

There are two tests that screen for cervical cancer:

  • Papanicolaou test (known as a Pap test or Pap Smear) 
    A Pap test looks at cells on the cervix and is often done during a routine pelvic exam. It looks for changes on the cervix that could become cervical cancer if not treated. If your Pap test results show cells that are not normal and may become cancer, your health care provider will contact you for follow-up. There are many reasons why Pap test results might not be normal. It usually does not mean you have cancer.
  • HPV test 
    The HPV test looks for the types of the virus that cause most cases of cervical cancer, the high-risk types. The HPV test can be done at the same time as the Pap test using either the same sample of cells or a second sample taken right after the Pap test. A positive result for high-risk HPV means that you should be followed closely to make sure that abnormal cells do not develop.
  • Vinegar test to prevent cervical cancer death

How often should a woman be screened for cervical cancer?

Women should start getting screened for cervical cancer at age 21. Talk with your health care provider about how often you should be screened for cervical cancer. Women who may no longer be having sex or who may feel too old to have a child should still have regular Pap tests. Cervical cancer is most often found in women who have not been screened with the Pap test in more than five years or have never been screened at all. Women who are not screened or have not been screened in a long time could have cervical cancer and not know it.

What can I do to prevent cervical cancer?

For more information about the cervix and cervical cancer, visit


More information about cervical cancer

1. How are HPV and cervical cancer related?

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is found in about 99% of cervical cancers. There are more than 100 different types of HPV, the majority of which are considered low risk and do not cause cervical cancer. High-risk HPV types may cause cervical cell abnormalities or cancer. More than 70% of cervical cancer cases can be attributed to two types of the virus, HPV-16 and HPV-18, often referred to as high-risk HPV types.

2. What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?

Precancerous cervical cell changes and early cancers of the cervix generally do not cause symptoms. Abnormal or irregular vaginal bleeding, pain during sex, or vaginal discharge may be symptoms of more advanced disease. Notify your health-care provider if you experience:
  • Bleeding between regular menstrual periods
  • Bleeding after sexual intercourse
  • Bleeding after douching
  • Bleeding after a pelvic exam
  • Pelvic pain not related to your menstrual cycle
  • Heavy or unusual discharge that may be watery, thick, and possibly have a foul odor
  • Increased urinary frequency
  • Pain during urination

3. How do you diagnose cervical cancer?

The best way to determine if precancerous or cancerous cells are present is with a Pap test. In addition, your doctor may recommend an HPV test. The HPV test does not indicate the presence of precancerous or cancerous cells; it determines whether or not a woman has an HPV infection with any of the 13 high-risk HPV types. The test cannot tell you whether your infection is new or if it is persistent. This information will assist you and your doctor to determine appropriate follow-up and intervals for cervical cancer screening.

4. What is a Pap test?

The Pap test (sometimes called a Pap smear) is a way to examine cells collected from the cervix (the lower, narrow end of the uterus). The main purpose of the Pap test is to find abnormal cell changes that may arise from cervical cancer or before cancer develops.

5. What do abnormal results mean?

A physician may simply describe Pap test results to a patient as "abnormal." Cells on the surface of the cervix sometimes appear abnormal but are very rarely cancerous. It is important to remember that abnormal conditions do not always become cancerous, and some conditions are more likely to lead to cancer than others. A woman may want to ask her doctor for specific information about her Pap test result and what the result means.

6. How often should a woman have a Pap test?

Women should talk with their clinician about when and how often they should have a Pap test. Current general guidelines recommend that women have a Pap test at least once every three years, beginning about three years after they begin to have sexual intercourse, but no later than age 21. Experts recommend waiting about three years after the start of sexual activity to avoid overtreatment for common, temporary abnormal changes. Cervical cancer, which usually develops slowly, is extremely rare in women under age 25.

Women ages 65 to 70 who have had at least three normal Pap tests and no abnormal Pap tests in the last 10 years may decide, after talking with their clinician, to stop having Pap tests. Women who have had a hysterectomy (surgery to remove the uterus and cervix) do not need to have a Pap test, unless the surgery was done as a treatment for precancer or cancer.

7. Are there any ways to prevent cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable cancers. If caught early, the five-year survival rate is almost 100%. Regular Pap testing is the best method to protect against invasive cervical cancer. It is important to remember that cervical cancer takes many years to develop. Regular Pap tests will, with luck, help detect any precancerous or abnormal cells early enough so that cervical cancer can be prevented.

In addition to routine Pap testing, you may want to consider minimizing risk factors that could contribute to cervical cancer. Those factors include:
  • Multiple sexual partners
  • Multiple full-term pregnancies
  • Sexual intercourse at an early age
  • Chlamydia infection
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Use of oral contraceptives
  • Weakened immune system or HIV infection

8. What are the treatment options available for cervical cancer?

The treatment of cervical cancer depends more on the severity of the disease (the stage) than the cell type. In the United States, the majority of cervical carcinoma patients are diagnosed with early stage disease.

Among women with the earliest stage (Stage lA1 or micro-invasive) of cervical cancer, a simple hysterectomy is generally recommended. Usual treatment of patients with stage lA2 and lB1 lesions consists of either radical hysterectomy with bilateral pelvic lymph node dissection or radiation therapy (RT), which combines two kinds of therapy—whole pelvic teletherapy and local brachytherapy (implants). These treatments work well at resolving lesions that are small and when the cells have not yet metastasized. Surgery is often preferred to radiation therapy in younger women because ovarian function is eliminated (bringing on a kind of menopause) and sexual function is often difficult following RT.

9. I've heard about the HPV vaccine. Does it protect against cervical cancer?

Yes, HPV vaccine is the first vaccine developed to prevent cervical cancer. This new vaccine is highly effective in preventing HPV infection, the major cause of cervical cancer in women. The vaccine protects against four types of HPV, including two that cause about 70% of cervical cancer.

Content provided by the National Cervical Cancer Coalition.







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