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About Cervical Cancer
What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is a cancer that forms in your cervix, the entry way going from your vagina to your uterus. Cancer cells grow abnormally fast, crowding out normal cells.
Doctors often detect cervical cancer using a screening test called a Pap smear. Sometimes the first symptoms are abnormal bleeding from your vagina, especially after sexual activity.
What causes cervical cancer?
Certain strains of a virus called HPV (human papillomavirus) most often cause cervical cancer. Some HPV types are linked to warts, while other types (high-risk strains) are linked to cervical cancer and other types of cancer.
You can transmit HPV sexually. People who have it often do not have symptoms or know they have it.
Most people’s immune systems get rid of an HPV infection within two years. But when your body cannot clear a high-risk HPV infection, normal cells may develop into cancer. You may be diagnosed with cervical cancer years after getting high-risk HPV.
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Cervical Cancer Symptoms
The first symptom of cervical cancer is often unusual bleeding from the vagina not related to having your period (menstruating). Other symptoms may include bleeding, pain, or pelvic cramps after sexual activity.
Cervical Cancer Risk Factors
Cervical cancer is mostly caused by a virus called HPV (human papillomavirus). The virus is transmitted sexually, usually without symptoms. It may be years after getting the virus that someone is diagnosed with cervical cancer.
A risk factor is anything that increases the risk that someone will develop a condition. Risk factors for cervical cancer include:
- A weakened body immune system. This can happen from drugs prescribed for organ transplants, or from certain other medical conditions including HIV.
Cervical Cancer Types
Cervical cancer has two main types:
- Squamous cell carcinoma: The most common type, which occurs in the lining of the cervix.
- Adenocarcinoma: Found in glands inside the cervix.
Cervical Cancer Stages
When your care team determines your diagnosis, they assess how advanced the cancer is, also called its stage. The stage of cervical cancer depends on how quickly the tumor has grown, whether the cancer has spread, and where it has spread.
To help assign a stage, you will have a biopsy to remove cells from your cervix. Pathologists, who specialize in analyzing cells and tissues, will examine the structure of your cervical cells under a microscope to determine if they are cancerous.
There are four stages of cervical cancer:
- Stage 1: Cancer is limited to the cervix only
- Stage 2: Cancer is in the cervix and the upper vagina
- Stage 3: Cancer has spread to the lower vagina or the pelvic wall
- Stage 4: Cancer has spread to nearby organs like the bladder or rectum, or to other areas such as the lungs, liver, or bones
At Stanford Health Care, we tailor our diagnostic approach to each patient. If you need further testing to complete your diagnosis, your doctor and care team will work with you to determine which tests you need.
To determine the most precise diagnosis, your doctor may schedule you for different types of imaging tests. If you have been screened elsewhere and received abnormal results, we may perform additional imaging, if needed. Imaging tests may include:
- Ultrasound: This test uses sound waves to produce images of your reproductive system and lymph nodes.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): An MRI uses radio waves and a magnetic field to create pictures of your tissues and to see whether the cancer may have spread.
- Chest X-ray: This test can show whether the cancer has spread to your lungs.
- Bone scan: We use a small amount of radioactive material to see whether cancer has spread to your bones.
- PET/CT scan: These imaging tests help us to stage cancer by helping us locate cancer and determine if it has spread.
If your imaging or other screening tests show that you may have cervical cancer, you will need a biopsy. This test takes a tiny sample of cells from abnormal tissues. A pathologist looks at these cells under a microscope and determines whether they are cancerous.
Before and during treatment, your doctor will ask you to have your blood drawn and tested at a lab. Blood tests can provide a variety of information and help us establish your diagnosis and plan your treatment. Blood tests may include:
- Complete blood count (CBC): Measures the number of red, white, and other blood cells you have
- Blood chemistry study: Looks at your levels of calcium and potassium (electrolytes) and enzymes to see how well your cervix functions
At any stage of cervical cancer, our team of specialists can help. Learn more about our innovative cervical cancer diagnosis and treatment options.
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