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)
If you have symptoms or Pap test results that suggest precancerous cells or cancer of the cervix, your doctor will suggest other procedures to make a diagnosis. The first step is usually colposcopy, in which the doctor examines the cells of the cervix more closely. Another common test to more closely examine the cells is a biopsy, in which a sample of cervical cells is taken for examination.
Colposcopy is a diagnostic test used to evaluate an area of abnormal tissue on the cervix, vagina, or vulva using an instrument called a colposcope. A colposcope looks like a pair of binoculars on a stand. It magnifies tissue so a healthcare practitioner can see abnormalities that cannot be seen with the naked eye.
In a biopsy, your doctor removes a small amount of tissue for examination under a microscope to look for precancerous cells or cancer cells. Most women have the biopsy in the doctor's office, and no anesthesia is needed.
Different types of cervical biopsies include:
Punch biopsy: The tissue sample is removed from the cervix using biopsy forceps, an instrument used to grasp tissue firmly and then remove it. This procedure is usually performed in your gynecologist's office and does not require anesthesia.
Endocervical curettage (ECC): A tissue sample is scraped from an area just past the opening of the cervix using a curette (small, spoon-shaped instrument) or a thin, soft brush. This can be done in your doctor's office and does not require anesthesia. LEEP (Loop Electro-Surgical Excision Procedure): The LEEP is performed using a small heated wire to remove tissue and precancerous cells from the cervix.
This procedure can be done in your doctor's office and requires local anesthesia. Cone biopsy (also called LEEP cone or cold knife cone biopsy): A cone-shaped sample of tissue is removed from the cervix so that the pathologist can see if abnormal cells are in the tissue beneath the surface of the cervix. This specimen is much bigger than the biopsy done in the office without anesthesia. A sample of tissue can be removed for a cone biopsy using a LEEP cone procedure, which can be done in the doctor's office under local anesthesia, or a knife cone procedure, done in an operating room under local or general anesthesia.
Cystoscopy and Proctoscopy
If advanced cancer is diagnosed and your doctor suspects the cancer may have spread beyond the cervix, a cytoscopy or proctoscopy may be done using a lighted tube to view the inside of the bladder (cystoscopy) or the anus, rectum and lower colon (proctoscopy).
To learn more about the extent of disease and suggest a course of treatment, the doctor may order some of the following imaging tests: Chest X-ray: This is a picture of the chest that shows your heart, lungs, airway, blood vessels and lymph nodes. A chest X-ray can often show whether cancer has spread to the lungs.
Computed tomography (CT) scan: This diagnostic test uses an X-ray machine and a computer to create detailed pictures of the body, including 3-D images. It is used to detect disease outside the cervix or abnormal organ structure. CT scans also can be used to guide a needle into a mass if a biopsy is needed.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): This diagnostic test uses magnetic fields and radio waves to create computerized pictures of the pelvis and abdomen. You may have to be placed in a tube, which can feel confining to people who have a fear of enclosed spaces.
Treatment of cervical cancer will depend on a number of factors, including:
- The stage of the cancer
- The size of the tumor
- The patient's desire to have children
- The patient's age and overall health
Treating cervical cancer when a woman is pregnant depends on two factors: the stage of pregnancy and the stage of cervical cancer. Treatment may be delayed until the baby is born if a woman is in her third trimester of pregnancy. Treatment may also be delayed in pregnant women if cervical cancer is detected before it has spread.
Small Precancerous Lesions:
The following surgical procedures may be used for precancerous lesions or for cancerous tissue that has not spread beyond the cervix.
Cryosurgery (cryotherapy): This surgical procedure uses an instrument to freeze and destroy precancerous tissue.
Laser surgery: This surgical procedure uses a narrow laser beam to destroy precancer cells. This is not used on invasive cancer. A benefit of laser treatment is its precision; it destroys only diseased tissue inside in the cervix.
LEEP (loop electrosurgical excision procedure): This procedure uses electrical current passed through a thin wire hook. This is primarily used on precancerous lesions under local anesthesia. The advantage of this procedure is that more of the tissue can be removed for evaluation.
Cone: A gynecologist uses the same procedure as a cone biopsy to remove all of the cancerous tissue. This procedure can be used in a woman who has a very small cancerous area and who wishes to preserve the ability to have children
Hysterectomy: This surgery removes the uterus and the cervix. This kind of procedure is performed only on women with cervical cancer less than three millimeters in depth.
Bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy: In this procedure, the fallopian tubes and ovaries are removed at the same time as the hysterectomy. If a woman is close to the age of menopause, her doctor may discuss removing her ovaries and fallopian tubes to reduce the chance that the cancer will recur in one of those organs.
Large Cervical Cancer Lesions:
The following surgical procedures may be used for larger cervical cancer lesions (usually up to four to five centimeters in width), but only if the cancer is all within the cervical tissue. If the cancer has spread beyond the cervix, doctors will usually recommend chemotherapy in combination with radiation therapy.
Trachealectomy: This procedure removes the cervix and surrounding tissue but not the uterus. It is used for women who have a larger cancerous area but wish to preserve the ability to have children. The procedure may include removal of lymph nodes. Typically patients considered for this procedure have to have tumors less than two centimeters in size.
Radical hysterectomy: The surgeon removes the cervix, uterus, part of the vagina and the tissues surrounding the cervix called the parametria. At the same time, the surgeon also removes nearby lymph nodes. Depending on a woman's age and the size of the tumor, she may also have a bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries and fallopian tubes).
Radiation therapy is used for cancers that have spread beyond the cervix (stage II, III or IV) or very large lesions (larger than four centimeters). Radiation therapy uses high-energy X-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or shrink the tumor. Radiation therapy is used instead of surgery in most cases. However, it is sometimes necessary after surgery if it is discovered that the cancer has spread outside the cervix, or to reduce the risk that a cancer will come back after surgery.
There are two types of radiation therapy:
External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cervical cancer. Internal radiation therapy uses a small amount of radioactive material that is delivered directly to the tumor using implants.
Internal radiation therapy implants are inserted through the vagina into the cervix, where they are placed next to the tumor while the patient is under anesthesia.
Chemotherapy uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. Chemotherapy can be given by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle. In most cases, it is given to a patient through a vein during an outpatient visit using systemic chemotherapy. The drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body. Regional chemotherapy is chemotherapy which is placed directly into an organ or a body cavity, such as the abdomen. Almost all cervical cancer patients in good medical condition who are receiving radiation for stage IIA or higher, will be offered chemotherapy in addition to radiation therapy.
New treatments are always being tested in clinical trials and some patients with cancer may want to consider participating in one of these research studies. These studies are meant to help improve current cancer treatments or obtain information on new treatments. Talk to your doctor about the clinical trials that may be right for you.