What is Cervical Cancer?
Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that starts in your cervix, which is a part of the female body that connects the vagina to the upper part of the uterus. The vast majority of cervical cancers are squamous cell carcinomas, and the rest are adenocarcinomas.
More than 90% of cervical cancers are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. HPV is a very common virus that is passed through sexual activity, but it usually causes no symptoms so it’s hard to know if you’ve been infected. In the U.S., nearly all sexually active people will contract HPV at some point in their lives. However, many HPV cases go away on their own and only specific types of HPV can cause cervical cancer.
Who Does Cervical Cancer Affect?
Anyone assigned female at birth is at risk for cervical cancer, particularly if you are over 30 years old.
14,100 new diagnoses
4,280 patients will die
Cervical Cancer Facts
Cervical cancer has a
66% 5-year survival rate
The highest rates of cervical cancer are among American Indian/Alaska Native, Hispanic/Latino, and Non-Hispanic Black women. Compared to White women, Hispanic women have a 22% higher incidence rate and Black women have a 14% higher incidence rate of cervical cancer. Black and Hispanic women also have an increased cervical cancer mortality rate compared to White women. Black women are 80% more likely to die from cervical cancer than White women. Gay and bisexual women are up to 10 times less likely to receive a cervical cancer screening, and only 27% of trans men report receiving a pap smear in the past year. Additionally, people who live in rural areas have substantially higher cervical cancer incidence rates than people who live in more urban places.
*Note: All statistics are based on the U.S. population.
Why? Cervical cancer is more common among low-income women, gay and bisexual women, and American Indian/Alaska Native, Hispanic, and Black women. These women often have lower access to cervical cancer screenings, which leads to their cancer being caught later when it’s harder to treat.
Why? American Indian/Alaska Native women and people who live in rural areas tend to live further away from cancer care, making their cancer more challenging to treat.
Cervical Cancer Risk Factors
Cervical cancer risk factors can either be genetic or based on your lifestyle. Whether you have just one of these risk factors or all of them, there is no guarantee you will develop cervical cancer in your lifetime. But risk factors are important to understand so you can adjust any lifestyle-based risks, talk to your doctor about your overall risk, and develop a routine screening plan to catch cervical cancer early if it does develop.
- Being unvaccinated against human papillomavirus (HPV)
- Having a long-term infection with certain types of HPV
- Having several sexual partners or having a partner who has previously had many sexual partners themselves
- Starting to have sex at a young age
- Being immunocompromised due to HIV or another condition
- Smoking and/or using other forms of tobacco
- Using birth control pills for 5+ years (but this risk gradually declines after stopping)
- Giving birth 3+ times
Worried about your use of birth control pills? Talk to your doctor about your overall cervical cancer risk and if it’s okay for you to continue using these medications. Life is all about finding your personal, healthy balance.
Cervical Cancer Warning Signs
- Vaginal bleeding that starts and stops between your regular menstrual period
- Vaginal bleeding that causes your period to last longer than normal or be heavier than normal
- Vaginal bleeding after sexual intercourse, douching, a pelvic exam, or menopause
- Increased vaginal discharge
Learn more about cancer Early Detection.
Notice a warning sign? Talk to your doctor, do not WebMD!
Preventing Cervical Cancer
Practice Safe Sex
HPV is a major cause of cervical cancer. Since HPV is spread through sexual contact, practicing safe sex can help protect you, but it’s not foolproof. Safe sex includes understanding your partner’s sexual history and using barrier contraceptive methods like condoms.
Since HPV infection causes up to 90% of cervical cancers, getting vaccinated against HPV before exposure to the virus is an incredibly powerful tool to prevent cervical cancer. The HPV vaccine is recommended for everyone ages 9-26 and requires 2 doses (shots) to complete, given 6 months apart.
Pap Tests and/or HPV Tests
This is a prevention-early detection double whammy! These early detection screenings can help find precancerous cells in the cervix, which can then be treated before they develop into cancer. Start thinking about routine screening after your 21st birthday, and get screened every 3-5 years.
Learn more about cancer Prevention.
Finding Cervical Cancer Early
Early detection saves lives by finding cervical cancer early when it is easier to treat and cure.
Types of cervical cancer screenings include:
A doctor will take a sample of cells and mucus from your cervix to check for any abnormalities that may indicate precancers or cervical cancer
This test examines cervical cells to see if you have any of the high-risk HPV types that are most likely to cause cervical cancer. The HPV test can be done by itself or at the same time as a Pap test. If you do the HPV and Pap tests together, you won’t notice any difference in your exam because they’re completed at the same time, in the same way. It’s almost like a BOGO deal!
How Frequently Should You Get Screened for Cervical Cancer?
If you have a cervix, we recommend:
- 21-29 Years Old: Talk to your doctor about when to start screening based on your risk factors and family history of cancer.
- 30-65 Years Old:Get a Pap test and/or HPV test every 3-5 years. The frequency of your screening will be determined by your doctor and depends on your past screening results and the type of screening you completed, risk factors, and family history of cancer.
- 65+ Years Old:You’re probably done getting cervical cancer screenings! But check with your doctor to be sure.
Ready to Get Screened?
- The CDC offers free or low-cost cervical cancer screenings for some people. Find out if you qualify here.
What Do Your Screening Results Mean?
During a cervical cancer screening, your doctor may find a pre-cancer of the cervix. This occurs when normal cells in the cervix start to gradually change in abnormal ways. These pre-cancerous changes are called cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN), squamous intraepithelial lesion (SIL), and dysplasia. While cervical cancers do start from precancerous cells, not all precancerous cells turn into cancer. In fact, most precancerous cells go away without any treatment. Your doctor can give you the real nitty gritty details about what’s going on in your cervix.
Cervical Cancer Treatment Options
Cervical cancer treatment is very personalized and depends on several factors, including if you are treating a pre-cancer or a cancer of the cervix.
If you’ve been diagnosed with precancerous cervical lesions, you will typically undergo one or more of these treatments:
- Cryosurgery – This procedure uses a cold metal probe to destroy precancerous cells by freezing them.
Laser Ablation – Using a laser beam through the vagina, this procedure vaporizes (aka burns off) any abnormal cells on the cervix.
Conization – Conization is a surgery to remove a cone-shaped piece of tissue from the cervix. This can be completed using a surgical knife, laser beam, or a thin heated wire (aka a LEEP procedure).
If you’ve been diagnosed with cervical cancer, you will typically undergo one or more of these treatments:
Surgery is typically used for invasive cervical cancers. Types of surgery to treat cervical cancer include:
- Hysterectomy – You could get a simple hysterectomy where the uterus and cervix are removed, but not the structures next to the uterus, or a radical hysterectomy where the uterus, tissues next to the uterus, cervix, and upper part of the vagina next to the cervix are all removed.
- Trachelectomy – This procedure removes your cervix and upper part of the vagina, but not the body of your uterus, which allows you to become pregnant in the future.
Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays or particles to kill cancer cells. Common types of radiation therapy used to treat cervical cancer include External Beam Radiation, where radiation beams are focused on the cancerous cells from a machine outside of the body, and Brachytherapy, where small radioactive pellets (aka seeds) are placed directly into your vagina or cervix.
Chemo uses anti-cancer drugs injected into your body or taken orally to fight cervical cancer. Chemo is typically used as a main treatment of cervical cancer in conjunction with radiation therapy, or as a treatment if your cervical cancer spreads or returns after treatment.
To learn more about what to expect at your first treatment appointment, visit our Life With Cancer page.
After Cervical Cancer Treatment
After you finish treatment, there is always a chance of recurrence, where the cervical cancer can come back, or a second cancer, where you are diagnosed later in life with an additional type of cancer. Making healthy lifestyle choices can help prevent a second cancer from developing.
Common Experiences of People with Cervical Cancer
Cancer is unique and each person’s experience is completely valid. But some feelings can be universal. Here are a few common, but less discussed, experiences you might have with cervical cancer:
Like Maybe Cervical Cancer is Your Fault Because You Have HPV
Spoiler Alert: cancer is never your fault. Just because you have HPV doesn’t mean you caused cervical cancer. In fact, most HPV infections don’t cause cancer and cervical cancer can affect anyone.
Feeling Embarrassed to Talk About Cervical Cancer
Because the cervix is associated with your sex organs, it can feel awkward or embarrassing to say that you’ve been diagnosed with cervical cancer. If you’re feeling this way, just remember that your doctor and treatment team will never be embarrassed to discuss your cancer with you.
Sources: American Cancer Society; AMA Journal of Ethics; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; The Fenway Institute; National Cancer Institute