Cervical cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the cervix.
The cervix is the lower, narrow end of the uterus (the hollow, pear-shaped organ where a foetus grows). The cervix leads from the uterus to the vagina (birth canal).
Cervical cancer usually develops slowly over time. Before cancer appears in the cervix, the cells of the cervix go through changes known as dysplasia, in which abnormal cells begin to appear in the cervical tissue. Over time, the abnormal cells may become cancer cells and start to grow and spread more deeply into the cervix and to surrounding areas.
The main risk factor for cervical cancer is human papillomavirus (HPV). In women who are infected with HPV, the following risk factors add to the increased risk of cervical cancer:
- Smoking cigarettes.
- Using oral contraceptives (“the Pill”) for a long time.
There are usually no signs or symptoms of early cervical cancer but it can be detected early with regular check-ups. Early cervical cancer may not cause signs or symptoms. It is important to have regular check-ups, including tests to check for human papillomavirus (HPV) or abnormal cells in the cervix. The prognosis (chance of recovery) is better when the cancer is found early. The most common test checking for cervical cancer is the pap test: A procedure to collect cells from the surface of the cervix and vagina. A piece of cotton, a brush, or a small wooden stick is used to gently scrape cells from the cervix and vagina. The cells are viewed under a microscope to find out if they are abnormal. This procedure is also called a Pap smear.
Signs and symptoms of cervical cancer include vaginal bleeding and pelvic pain, as well as unusual vaginal discharges and pain during sexual intercourses.
After cervical cancer has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the cervix or to other parts of the body.
The process used to find out if cancer has spread within the cervix or to other parts of the body is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. It is important to know the stage in order to plan treatment.
Treatment options for Cervical cancer depend on the following:
- The stage of the cancer.
- The type of cervical cancer.
- The patient’s desire to have children.
- The patient’s age.
The following tests and procedures may be used in the staging process:
- CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.
- PET scan (positron emission tomography scan): A procedure to find malignant tumour cells in the body. A small amount of radioactive glucose (sugar) is injected into a vein. The PET scanner rotates around the body and constructs a picture of where glucose is being used in the body. Malignant tumour cells show up brighter in the picture because they are more active and take up more glucose than normal cells do.
- MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).
- Ultrasound exam: A procedure in which high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) are bounced off internal tissues or organs and make echoes. The echoes form a picture of body tissues called a sonogram. This picture can be printed to be looked at later
- Chest x-ray: An x-ray of the organs and bones inside the chest. An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, constructing a picture of areas inside the body.
- Cystoscopy: A procedure to look inside the bladder and urethra to check for abnormal areas. A cystoscope is inserted through the urethra into the bladder. A cystoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. It may also have a tool to remove tissue samples, which are checked under a microscope for signs of cancer.
Cervical cancer treatments may include Surgical operations, Chemotherapy, Immunotherapy and Radiation Therapy. The way radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated. External and internal radiation therapy are used to treat cervical cancer, and may also be used as palliative therapy to relieve symptoms and improve quality of life.
Depending on the exact location and size of the tumour, Radiotherapy treatments for cervical cancer can last from 4 to 6 week.
Some tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are usually called follow-up tests or check-ups.