Cervical Cancer – Foundation for Women's Cancer
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Cervical Cancer

This section will take you through the basics of what you need to know about cervical cancer. It will introduce you to the people who may be part of your treatment team. Also, it will identify the different types of treatments for cervical cancer. Hopefully, this information will help prepare you to talk with your treatment team and to feel more confident about your treatment plan.

Download a printable version of the information in this section with our brochure, Cervical Cancer: Your Guide.

Cervical cancer overview

Cancer occurs when cells in an area of the body grow abnormally. Cervical cancer is a cancer that begins in the cervix, the part of the uterus or womb that opens into the vagina. It is the part of the uterus that dilates and opens fully to allow a baby to pass into the birth canal. The normal cervix has two main types of cells: squamous (or flat) cells, which protect the outside of the cervix, and glandular cells which are mostly inside the cervix, and produce the fluid and mucus commonly seen during ovulation.

Cervical cancer is caused by abnormal changes in either of these cell types in the cervix, and is the only gynecologic cancer that can be prevented by regular screening and preventive vaccination.

Cervical cancer symptoms

Cervical precancers usually have no symptoms. That is why it is important to have a Pap test. A woman usually does not have any signs until the cells turn into cancer and invade the deepest parts of the cervix or other pelvic organs.

These symptoms include:

  • Vaginal discharge
  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding
  • Vaginal odor
  • Pain

These symptoms may be caused by cancer or by other health problems. It is important for a woman to see her doctor if she is having any of these symptoms.

Medical evaluation and diagnosis

When a woman experiences concerning symptoms, a pelvic exam (including a rectovaginal exam) and a general physical should be performed. If the exam is abnormal, the woman might be advised to undergo an HPV test, a colposcopy (observing the cervix through a magnifying scope) and a biopsy, depending on the results of the colposcopy.

If cervical cancer is suspected or diagnosed, it is important to seek care first from a gynecologic oncologist—medical doctors with specialized training in treating gynecologic cancers who can manage your care from diagnosis to completion of treatment. Use our Seek a Specialist tool to find a gynecologic oncologist in your area.

Seek a Specialist

During your treatment, you will come in contact with many health care professionals—these people make up your treatment team. They will work with each other and you to provide the special care you need. Learn more about your treatment team.

Surgical staging

When cervical cancer is diagnosed, it is vital to determine if the cancer has spread. Your treatment team may do more tests to determine this. Additionally, specific procedures during surgery may be performed to determine the extent of disease. This process is called staging. Staging helps to determine the exact extent of your cancer and what treatment plan is best for you.

Following surgery, your cancer will be categorized into Stage I, II, III, or IV, illustrated below. The cancer will also be assigned a grade. Grade refers to how abnormal the cells appear under a microscope. Low grade tumors, also called grade 1, have features that resemble normal cervical cells. In contrast, in high grade tumors (grade 3) the microscopic appearance is greatly altered from normal.

It is important that your surgery be performed by a gynecologic oncologist, a physician with special training in the care of women’s reproductive cancers. Studies show that patients treated by gynecologic oncologists at high-volume centers have improved outcomes.

Cervical cancer stages

Stage I: The cancer is found only in the cervix.

Stage II: The cancer has spread from the cervix to the upper part of the vagina or the tissue around the uterus. It has not spread to the pelvic wall—the muscle and connective tissues that line the insides of the pelvic bones. Cancer cells may also be found in the lymph nodes in the pelvis.

Stage III: The cancer has spread to the lower part of the vagina or to the pelvic wall. It may block the flow of urine to the bladder. Cancer cells may also be found in the lymph nodes in the pelvis.

Stage IV: The cancer has spread to other body parts within or outside the pelvis. Cancer cells may be found in the bladder, rectum, abdomen, liver, intestines or lungs.

Cervical cancer treatment and side effects

Cervical cancer may be treated with surgery, radiation therapy or chemotherapy. Depending on a number of factors, your treatment team may recommend using a combination of treatments to treat your cancer.

Understanding the goals of treatment

As you begin your treatment, make sure that you understand what to expect. Is this for cure? What are the chances of cure? If there is no cure, will the treatment make me live better or longer? It is very important to understand the truth about what to expect from the treatment—and what are the potential costs of side effects, expenses, etc.—so that you can make the best decisions for yourself and the life you want to lead.

All treatments for cervical cancer have side effects. Most side effects can be managed or minimized. Some treatments may affect your sexual function or your ability to have children.

Before beginning treatment, it is important to learn about the possible side effects and talk with your treatment team members about your feelings or concerns. They can prepare you for what to expect and tell you which side effects should be reported to them immediately. They can also help you find ways to manage the side effects you experience.

Cervical cancer treatment options

Importance of participation in clinical trials

There are many ongoing clinical trials studying new and better ways to treat cervical cancer. Many treatment options are available today because women diagnosed with cervical cancer were willing to participate in prior clinical trials.

Clinical trials are designed to test some of the newest and most promising treatments for cervical cancer. The Foundation for Women’s Cancer (FWC) partners with NRG Oncology (formerly Gynecologic Oncology Group), part of the National Cancer Institute cooperative group working only on gynecologic cancer clinical trials, and others to make information about current clinical trials available. For more information about clinical trials available for enrollment, visit ClinicalTrials.gov.

Understand that a return to your full life will take time—give yourself the time you need.