Understanding cervical cancer

Out of the 5 types of gynecologic cancers, cervical cancer is the only one with a screening test that detects abnormal cells and a vaccine that helps prevent you from ever getting it.1 There are also simple lifestyle habits you can do to help prevent cervical cancer. There's a lot to cover here, but let's start with a break down on what cervical cancer is.

Cervical cancer is cancer that starts in the cells of the cervix (the lower part of a woman's uterus where a baby grows). The cervix is made up of two parts and each part is covered with different types of cells. The spot where these two parts of the cervix come together is called the transformation zone. (Sounds kind of like a of sci-fi term, doesn’t it?) It’s the place where cells are constantly changing, so it’s no surprise that most cervical cancers start there. When cells change abnormally, they’re called precancerous cells. They either go away with treatment or turn into cancer.2

What are the types of cervical cancer?

There are a number of different kinds of cancer that may show up in the cervix. Almost all cervical cancers are either carcinomas or adenocarcinomas. Here’s what those are:3

  • Squamous cell Carcinoma: This starts in the outer part of the cervix where squamous cells call home. (They’re the cells that live on the outer part of your skin.) 90% of cases are squamous cell carcinomas.
  • Adenocarcinoma: This starts in the glandular cells that live in the opening of the cervix. (These cells make mucus and help your menstrual flow.)

Rarely, both of these cancers happen at the same time. But, if they do it’s called an adenosquamous carcinoma, or mixed carcinoma.

Who should I see if I'm concerned about cervical cancer?

If you think you have some of the symptoms listed above, visit your primary provider (the doctor or provider you might see for your yearly physical, and regular Pap smear and HPV test). Bring a list of your symptoms, medicines you’re taking, and jot down anything else your doctor might ask about. (Maybe also include some notes about your sexual history — it’ll likely come up.) Depending on how the conversation goes, your doctor may order some tests to find out whether or not your symptoms are being caused by cervical cancer. Plus, he or she may recommend you schedule an appointment with your gynecologist.13

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Footnotes

  1. Cervical cancer hopkinsmedicine.org, 2021.
  2. Cervical cancer- Symptoms and causes mayoclinic.org, 2019.
  3. What is Cervical Cancer? cancer.org, 2020.
  4. Screening Tests of Cervical Cancer cancer.org, 2020.
  5. The HPV Test cancer.org, 2020.
  6. What Should I Know About Screening? cdc.gov, 2021.
  7. Cervical cancer- Diagnosis and treatment mayoclinic.org, 2019.
  8. Signs and Symptoms of Cervical Cancer cancer.org, 2020.
  9. Cervical cancer- Symptoms and causes mayoclinic.org, 2019.
  10. Risk Factors for Cervical Cancer cancer.org, 2020.
  11. HPV vaccine: Who needs it, how it works mayoclinic.org, 2020.
  12. Treating Cervical Cancer cancer.org, 2021.
  13. Cervical cancer- Diagnosis and treatment mayoclinic.org, 2019.