Each year, about 11,000 women in the United States learn that they have cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is one of the most common cancers of the reproductive organs. Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by infection with human papillomavirus (HPV). Before cervical cancer appears, the cells of the cervix go through precancerous changes known as dysplasia, in which abnormal cells begin to appear in the cervical tissue. An annual Pap test looks for changes in cervical cells that can lead to cervical cancer. Through increased use of the Pap test, the cervical cancer death rate has greatly declined. Chances of successfully treating cancer are highest when detected early.
There are two main types of cancer of the cervix; each develops from different tissue types. The most common (about 80 to 90 percent) are squamous cell carcinomas. The other 10 to 20 percent are adenocarcinomas. Squamous cell carcinoma develops in the lining of the cervix. Adenocarcinoma develops in gland cells that produce cervical mucus. Some types of adenocarcinoma are aggressive and are associated with a poor prognosis. The most important factor of prognosis is the stage of the cancer, which determines the treatment options and outcomes. Treatment options are the same regardless if a cervical cancer is classified as squamous or adenocarcinoma.
In its earliest stages, cervical cancer usually does not display any symptoms, which is why regular Pap tests are so important, particularly for sexually active women. Inform your doctor immediately if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- Vaginal discharge tinged with blood
- Bleeding after sexual intercourse
- Abnormal bleeding: after menopause, between menstrual periods or excessively heavy periods
- Increased urinary frequency
- Swollen leg (seen in more advanced cases)