Cervical Cancer

What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is the growth of abnormal cells in the lining of the cervix.2

The cervix is part of the female reproductive system, which also includes the fallopian tubes, uterus (womb), ovaries, vagina (birth canal) and vulva (external genitals).1

The cervix has an outer surface that opens into the vagina and an inner surface that lines the cervical canal. These two surfaces are covered by two types of cells:

  • Squamous cells – flat, thin cells that cover the outer surface of the cervix (ectocervix). Cancer of the squamous cells is called squamous cell carcinoma.
  • Glandular cells – column-shaped cells that cover the inner surface of the cervix (cervical canal or endocervix). Cancer of the glandular cells is called adenocarcinoma.

The most common cervical cancer is squamous cell carcinoma, accounting for 70% of cases. Adenocarcinoma is less common and more difficult to diagnose because it starts higher in the cervix.2

Is cervical cancer hereditary?

There is no known genetic cause of cervical cancer.1

Nearly all cervical cancers are caused by HPV infections. Although you can’t inherit cervical cancer, you may still be more likely to have it because of your genes. For example, women with a mother or sister who had the disease may have a higher risk of developing it themselves. It is currently not understood if this is caused by an inherited condition that makes some women more vulnerable to HPV infection than others.3

Stages of cervical cancer

The most common system used to stage cervical cancer is called the TNM system, which stands for:5

  • Tumour (T) – which describes how big the tumour is and how much of the cervix and surrounding tissue has been affected.
  • Nodes (N) – describes how many lymph nodes have been affected by the cancer.
  • Metastasis (M) – describes if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

Signs and symptoms of cervical cancer

Cervical cancer usually has no symptoms in its early stages. The only way to know if there are abnormal cells in the cervix that may develop into cervical cancer is to have a cervical screening test.1

If symptoms occur, they typically include:

  • vaginal bleeding between periods, after menopause, or during or after sexual intercourse
  • pelvic pain
  • pain during sexual intercourse
  • an unusual vaginal discharge
  • heavier periods or periods that last longer than usual

There are several conditions that can cause these symptoms besides cervical cancer. However, it is important if you are experiencing any of the above symptoms that you talk to your doctor.

Treatment

Frequently asked questions

What causes cervical cancer?

Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by persistent infection with some high-risk types of the human papillomavirus (HPV); this is the biggest risk factor for cervical cancer. The other main risk factor for cervical cancer is smoking.2

There is some evidence that women who have taken the contraceptive pill for five years or more are at increased risk of developing cervical cancer. The risk is small and taking the pill has also been shown to reduce the risk of other cancers such as ovarian and uterine cancers.2

Other risk factors include:

  • a weakened immune system
  • exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES), an artificial form of the female hormone, oestrogen

Around eight out of 10 women will become infected with genital HPV at some time in their lives. Most women who have the HPV infection never get cervical cancer; only a few types of the HPV result in cervical cancer.2

How common is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is most commonly diagnosed in women over 30, but it can occur at any age.2

About one in 195 women will develop cervical cancer before the age of 75.2

The most common cervical cancer is squamous cell carcinoma, accounting for 70% of cases. Adenocarcinoma is less common and more difficult to diagnose because it starts higher in the cervix.2

What are the risk factors of cervical cancer?

A risk factor is any factor that is associated with an increased chance of developing a health condition, such as cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer is not infectious. It is not caused by an inherited faulty gene, so other members of your family are not likely to be at risk of developing it.3

Risk factors for cervical cancer include:1

  • Smoking and passive smoking – Chemicals in tobacco can damage the cells of the cervix, making cancer more likely to develop in women with HPV.
  • Long-term use of oral contraceptive (the pill) – Research has shown that women who have taken the pill for five years or more are at increased risk of developing cervical cancer. The reason for this is not clear. However, the risk is small and the pill can also help protect against other types of cancer, such as uterine and ovarian cancers.
  • Having a weakened immune system – The immune system helps rid the body of HPV. Women with a weakened immune system have an increased risk of developing cervical cancer and need to have more frequent cervical screening tests. This includes women with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and women who take medicines that lower their immunity.
  • Exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES) – This is a synthetic (artificial) form of the female hormone oestrogen. DES was prescribed to pregnant women from the 1940s to the early 1970s to prevent miscarriage. Studies have shown that the daughters of women who took DES have a small but increased risk of developing a rare type of cervical adenocarcinoma.

References

For a full list of references, click here.
  1. Cancer Council (2019). Understanding Cervical Cancer: A guide for people with cancer, their families and friends. Retrieved on 01 October 2019 from https://cancer.org.au/content/about_cancer/ebooks/cancertypes/Understanding_cervical_cancer_booklet_September_2019.pdf#_ga=2.107198658.1791040564.1569977015-345937469.1569977015
  2. Cancer Council (2019). Cervical Cancer. Retrieved on 01 October 2019 from https://cancer.org.au/about-cancer/types-of-cancer/cervical-cancer.html?_ga=2.107198658.1791040564.1569977015-345937469.1569977015#jump_1
  3. Australian Government, Cancer Australia (2019). What are the risk factors for cervical cancer? Retrieved on 01 October 2019 from https://cervical-cancer.canceraustralia.gov.au/risk-factors
  4. Cancer Council Victoria (2019). Cervical Cancer; Treatment of cervical cancer. Retrieved on 01 October 2019 from https://www.cancervic.org.au/cancer-information/types-of-cancer/cervical_cancer/treatment_for_cervical_cancer.html
  5. American Cancer Society (2019). Cervical Cancer Stages. Retrieved on 03 October 2019 from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cervical-cancer/detection-diagnosis-staging/staged.html

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