Home > Patients & Visitors > Health Library > Cervical Cancer
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.
Cervical cancer occurs when abnormal cells on the cervix grow out of control. The cervix is the lower part of the uterus that opens into the vagina. Cervical cancer can often be successfully treated when it's found early. It is usually found at a very early stage through a screening test, such as the Pap test.
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.
Most adults have been infected with HPV at some time. An infection may go away on its own. But sometimes it can cause genital warts or lead to cervical cancer. That's why it's important for women to have regular cervical cancer screening tests. A screening test can find changes in cervical cells before they turn into cancer. If you treat these cell changes, you may prevent cervical cancer.
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:
As part of a pelvic exam, you may 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.
The treatment for most stages of cervical cancer includes:
Depending on how much the cancer has grown, you may have one or more treatments. And you may have a combination of treatments. If you have a hysterectomy, you won't be able to have children. But a hysterectomy isn't always needed, especially when cancer is found very early.
Finding out that you have cancer can change your life. You may feel like your world has turned upside down and you have lost all control. Talking with family, friends, or a counselor can really help. Ask your doctor about support groups. Or call the American Cancer Society (1-800-227-2345) or visit its website at www.cancer.org.
A screening test can find cervical cell changes that can lead to cervical cancer. Regular screening tests, such as the Pap test, almost always show these cell changes before they turn into cancer. It's important to follow up with your doctor after any abnormal test result so that abnormal cell changes can be managed. This may help prevent cervical cancer.
If you are age 26 or younger, you can get the HPV vaccine, which protects against types of HPV that cause most cases of cervical cancer.
The virus that causes cervical cancer is spread through sexual contact. The best way to avoid getting a sexually transmitted infection 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.
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
Cervical cancer is caused by severe abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix. Most precancerous or cancerous cell changes occur in the cervix at the transformation zone, because these cells normally undergo constant change. During this natural process of change, some cervical cells can become abnormal if you are infected with high-risk types of HPV.
Other things may play a role in causing cervical cancer, such as having more than one sex partner or smoking cigarettes.
Abnormal cervical cell changes rarely cause symptoms. If cervical cell changes progress to cancer, symptoms may include:
The symptoms of advanced cervical cancer may include:
Cervical cancer happens when abnormal cells on the cervix grow out of control. Cervical cancer can often be successfully treated when it's found early. It is usually found at a very early stage through a screening test.
If cervical cancer isn't treated, it may spread from the cervix to the vagina, and then into deeper tissue layers of connective tissue around the uterus. As it progresses, it may spread to the pelvic lymph nodes and other pelvic organs. Advanced-stage cancer may spread to lymph nodes; to other organs in the pelvis, causing problems with kidney and bowel function; or to other organs in the body, such as the liver and lungs.
Treatment of cervical cancer depends on the stage of your cancer and if it has spread.
A risk factor for cervical cancer is something that increases your chance of getting this cancer. Having one or more of these risk factors can make it more likely that you will get cervical cancer. But it doesn't mean that you will definitely get it. And many people who get cervical cancer don't have any of these risk factors.
Things that may increase your risk for cervical cancer include:
Call your doctor if you have:
If you have been diagnosed with cervical cancer, be sure to follow your doctor's instructions about calling when you have problems, new symptoms, or symptoms that get worse.
Health professionals who can evaluate your symptoms and your risk factors, and who can diagnose cervical cancer include:
Doctors who can manage your cancer treatment include:
Screening tests can help your doctor find and treat cervical cell changes before they progress to cervical cancer.
The recommended screening schedule is based on your age and things that increase your risk. Talk to your doctor about how often to be tested.
Tests to confirm a diagnosis of cervical cancer include:
Tests to find the extent (stage) of cervical cancer include:
Cervical cancer found in its early stages can be successfully treated. The choice of treatment and the long-term outcome (prognosis) of cervical cancer depend on the type and stage of cancer. Your age, overall health, quality of life, and desire to be able to have children must also be considered.
Treatment choices for cervical cancer may be a single therapy or a combination of therapies, such as:
Additional information about cervical cancer is provided by the National Cancer Institute at www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/types/cervical.
When you first find out that you have cancer, you may feel scared or angry. Or you may feel very calm. It's normal to have a wide range of feelings and for those feelings to change quickly. Some people find that it helps to talk about their feelings with family and friends.
If your emotional reactions to cancer get in the way of your ability to make decisions about your health, it's important to talk with your doctor. Your cancer treatment center may offer psychological or financial services or both. And a local chapter of the American Cancer Society can help you find a support group.
Your feelings about your body and your sexuality may change following treatment for cancer. Managing body image issues may involve talking openly with your partner about your feelings and discussing your concerns with your doctor. Your doctor may be able to refer you to organizations that can offer additional support and information.
Cancer treatment during pregnancy is the same as for nonpregnant women. But when you'll get treatment may depend on the stage of your cancer and what trimester you are in. For example, if you have early-stage cervical cancer and you are in your third trimester, your treatment may be delayed until after you deliver your baby. Treatment may cause problems such as an early delivery or even the loss of the baby.
After treatment for cervical cancer, it is important to receive follow-up care. Your oncologist or gynecologic oncologist will schedule regular checkups that will include:footnote 1
Follow-up tests that may be recommended by your oncologist include an abdominal and pelvic computed tomography (CT) scan. This test is to see if cancer has spread to other organs in the belly or pelvis.
Cervical cancer can return, or recur, after treatment. The chance that your cancer will return depends on the stage of the initial cancer. Cancer found early is less likely to come back than cancer found at a later stage.
Your long-term outcome (prognosis) for recurrent cervical cancer depends greatly on how much the cancer has spread when the recurrence is diagnosed.
Treatments include surgery and chemoradiation or chemotherapy to relieve symptoms. Your doctor may talk with you about being in a clinical trial. Clinical trials for cervical cancer are studying therapies that target cancer cells.
Palliative care is a kind of care for people who have a serious illness. It's different from care to cure your illness. Its goal is to improve your quality of life—not just in your body but also in your mind and spirit. You can have this care along with treatment to cure your illness.
Palliative care providers will work to help control pain or side effects. They may help you decide what treatment you want or don't want. And they can help your loved ones understand how to support you.
If you're interested in palliative care, talk to your doctor.
For more information, see the topic Palliative Care.
For some people who have advanced cancer, a time comes when treatment to cure the cancer no longer seems like a good choice. This can be because the side effects, time, and costs of treatment are greater than the promise of cure or relief. But you can still get treatment to make you as comfortable as possible during the time you have left. You and your doctor can decide when you may be ready for hospice care.
For more information, see the topics:
You can treat early cervical cell changes (dysplasia), which can reduce your risk for cervical cancer. You can also reduce your risk for abnormal cell changes.
Women who smoke cigarettes or who breathe in secondhand smoke have a higher risk for cervical cell changes that can lead to cervical cancer.footnote 2 Quitting smoking may decrease this risk.
For information about quitting, see the topic Quitting Smoking.
If you are age 26 or younger, you can get the HPV shot. The HPV vaccine protects against the types of human papillomavirus (HPV) that cause cervical cancer. It is recommended for children age 11 or 12, but can be given as early as age 9. Children ages 9 to 14 years get the vaccine in a series of two shots over 6 months. Children age 15 years and older get the vaccine as a three-dose series. For it to work best, all shots in the series must be given. For more information, see the topic Immunizations.
Preventing an STI, including HPV, is easier than treating an infection after it occurs. HPV infection usually doesn't cause symptoms, so you or your partner may not know that you are infected.
To reduce your risk:
Not having sexual contact is the only certain way to prevent exposure to STIs. Sexually transmitted infections such as human papillomavirus (HPV) can be spread to or from the genitals, anus, mouth, or throat during sexual activities.
The side effects of cancer treatment can be serious. Healthy habits such as eating a balanced diet and getting enough sleep and exercise may help control your symptoms. Your doctor may also give you medicines to help you with certain side effects.
Other symptoms that can be treated at home include:
Problems after hysterectomy may include:
Having cancer can change your life in many ways. For support in managing these changes, see the topic Getting Support When You Have Cancer.
Chemotherapy is used to shrink cervical cancer and decrease tumor growth. It may be used alone or along with radiation (chemoradiation).
Chemoradiation, compared with radiation alone, improves survival in early-stage cervical cancer.footnote 4 Chemoradiation can be used as the main treatment or after a hysterectomy.
Chemotherapy may be used to treat cervical cancer that has spread beyond the cervix.
Chemotherapy medicines used to treat cervical cancer may include carboplatin, cisplatin, and paclitaxel.
Most chemotherapy will cause some side effects, such as nausea, vomiting, and hair loss. Your doctor may also give you medicines to control and prevent nausea and vomiting. Home treatment may also help relieve other common side effects of cancer treatment.
Surgery to remove the cancer depends on the location and extent of cervical cancer and your desire to be able to have children. You also may be given radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of the two (chemoradiation). These treatments may be given before or after surgery to try to destroy any cancer cells that may remain or to help control or shrink the tumor.
Surgery for very early stages of cervical cancer may preserve your ability to have children. Surgeries include:
Surgery for most stages of cervical cancer does not preserve your ability to have children. Surgeries include:
Side effects from a conization usually include mild cramping during the first few hours, soreness for several days, and vaginal discharge for about a week. This surgery may be done in your doctor's office.
A hysterectomy is major surgery with general anesthesia, so you will likely be in the hospital for a few days. With laparoscopic surgery, you may go home the next day. As soon as you feel strong enough, get up and move around as much as you can. This helps prevent problems after surgery like blood clots, pneumonia, and gas pains.
Other side effects from hysterectomy may include:
For more information, see the topic Sexual Problems in Women.
Home treatment may help relieve some common after-surgery side effects.
Radiation therapy is used for certain stages of cervical cancer, often along with surgery. Chemotherapy may be given at the same time as radiation treatment (chemoradiation) to improve survival rates. Chemoradiation may be used as the main treatment or after a hysterectomy.
Radiation therapy uses high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation may come from a machine outside the body (external radiation therapy). Or it may come from radiation material (radioisotopes) in thin plastic tubes inserted through the vagina into the cervical area where the cancer cells are found.
Radiation may cause many side effects, including diarrhea and irritation of the bladder (radiation cystitis). Home treatment may help relieve some common side effects of cancer treatment.
Your ability to have or enjoy sexual intercourse may also be affected. This is because radiation may cause changes to the cells lining the vagina (mucosa), making intercourse difficult or painful. A series of vaginal dilators, starting with a small one and progressing to a larger size, may be used after radiation therapy. Using the dilators can help by making the vaginal opening larger.
Radiation to treat cervical cancer may thin the bone and increase the risk of fractures in the pelvic area, including hip fractures. You can take steps to prevent thinning of the bone (osteoporosis), such as getting enough calcium and vitamin D. Also, try to prevent falls, which can lead to fractures. For more information, see the topic Osteoporosis.
Some women who have cervical cancer may be interested in taking part in research studies called clinical trials. Clinical trials are designed to find better ways to treat cancer patients. They are based on the most up-to-date information. Women who don't want standard treatments or are not cured using standard treatments may want to take part in clinical trials. These are ongoing in most parts of the United States and in some other countries for all stages of cervical cancer.
People sometimes use complementary therapies along with medical treatment to help relieve symptoms and side effects of cancer treatments. Some of the therapies that may be helpful include:
These mind-body treatments may help you feel better. They can make it easier to cope with treatment. They also may reduce chronic low back pain, joint pain, headaches, and pain from treatments.
Before you try a complementary therapy, talk to your doctor about the possible value and potential side effects. Let your doctor know if you are already using any of these therapies. They are not meant to take the place of standard medical treatment.
National Comprehensive Cancer Network (2012). Cervical Cancer, version 1. Available online: http://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/PDF/cervical.pdf.
National Cancer Institute (2012). Cervical Cancer (PDQ): Prevention—Health Professional Version. Available online: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/prevention/cervical/HealthProfessional.
Winer RL, et al. (2006). Condom use and the risk of genital human papillomavirus infection in young women. New England Journal of Medicine, 354(25): 2645–2654.
Martin-Hirsch PL, Wood NJ (2011). Cervical cancer, search date October 2009. BMJ Clinical Evidence. Available online: http://www.clinicalevidence.com.
Current as of:
September 8, 2021
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: Kathleen Romito MD - Family MedicineE. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Current as of: September 8, 2021
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine & E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
© 1995-2022 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.
Feeling under the weather?
Use our interactive symptom checker to evaluate your symptoms and determine appropriate action or treatment.