What is Cervical Cancer?
Cervical cancer is a cancer of the cervix, the lower portion of the uterus or womb. The cervix is the part of the uterus that opens into the vaginal canal and dilates during labor.
Cervical cancer used to be the most common cancer killer in women and remains common in the developing world. Currently, approximately 13,240 women in the United States are diagnosed with cervical cancer annually, while approximately 4,170 will die of cervical cancer each year. However, patients who have cervical cancer that has been caught early have excellent survival rates—92 percent will survive through the first five years after their diagnosis. The main reason for the improvement in cervical cancer outcomes in the U.S. is the use of Pap smear screening, which allows early diagnosis of precancerous cells. Cervical cancer will most often affect women in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. However, more than 15 percent of cervical cancers are diagnosed in women over the age of 65.
Cervical cancer is caused by a persistent longstanding infection with high-risk strain of the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV infections are very common; the majority of people who have been sexually active with skin-to-skin genital contact have been infected. However, most HPV infections cause no symptoms and do not lead to cervical cancer.
Approximately 13 types of HPV infection are considered high-risk and can develop into cervical cancer. HPV 16 and 18 are the two most common high-risk types seen in association with cervical cancers in the U.S.
It is easy to reduce the risk of cervical cancer, by using screening tests such as a Pap smear and HPV testing. The Pap test takes a sample of cervical cells to determine if any of those cells are abnormal. Abnormal Pap smear results may then prompt further workup, including biopsies of the cervix, which may find either precancerous changes of the cervix or cancer. Most cervical cancers in the U.S. occur in women who have not had a Pap smear recently. In these cases, precancerous cells had time to develop into cancer before being caught and treated. HPV testing can help determine if any of the high-risk strains of HPV are present, allowing for increased surveillance for cancer if they are.
Role of the Gynecologic Oncologist
Gynecologic oncologists are trained in the comprehensive management of gynecologic cancer. As such, they coordinate care for women with cervical cancer from diagnosis, to surgery, to chemotherapy, through survivorship and palliative care at the end of life. They serve as captain of the entire cancer care team of medical oncologists, pathologists, radiologists, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, registered nurses and genetic counselors, among others. Seek a specialist near you.
Patients, Caregivers and Survivors
As part of the overview section on cervical cancer, learn general information, including risk factors and symptoms, and what to do if your doctor suspects you or your loved one has been diagnosed with cervical cancer. SGO also has a useful toolkit for cervical cancer survivors. Additional resources have been developed to explain gynecologic cancer clinical trials and the phases involved.
NEXT: Risk Factors