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Patient education: Cervical cancer (The Basics)

Patient education: Cervical cancer (The Basics)

What is cervical cancer? — The cervix is the bottom part of the uterus, where it meets the vagina (figure 1). Cancer of the cervix (cervical cancer) happens when normal cells in the cervix change into abnormal cells and grow out of control. Most people whose cervical cancer is found and treated early do very well.

What are the symptoms of cervical cancer? — Cervical cancer might not cause any symptoms at first. When it does cause symptoms, it can cause vaginal bleeding that occurs:

In between menstrual cycles (meaning that the bleeding happens when you are not having your period)

After sex

After menopause

These symptoms can also be caused by conditions that are not cancer. But if you have vaginal bleeding at these times, tell your doctor or nurse.

Is there a test for cervical cancer? — Yes. There are 2 tests to check or "screen" for cervical cancer:

Pap test (also called a "Pap smear")

A test for a virus called "human papillomavirus" ("HPV")

For both tests, the doctor or nurse looks inside your vagina using a device called a "speculum." They then use a small brush to collect fluid from the cervix. For a Pap test, a doctor looks at the fluid under a microscope to see if the cells are abnormal. For an HPV test, the fluid is tested in a lab to check for the virus. Depending on your age and any test you have had in the past, the doctor might do just a Pap test, just an HPV test, or both.

If the test results are abnormal, the doctor will follow up with a test called a "colposcopy." For this test, the doctor uses a magnifying lens called a "colposcope" to look at your cervix. Then, they do a biopsy. This involves removing a tiny piece of abnormal-looking tissue from the cervix.

Doctors sometimes find cells in the cervix that are not cancer, but are abnormal and have a high chance of turning into cancer. If you have these "precancer" cells, your doctor might remove them to prevent them from turning into cancer. Or they might watch these cells closely over time to see if they change.

What is cervical cancer staging? — Cancer staging is a way in which doctors find out how far a cancer has spread.

The right treatment for you depends a lot on the stage of your cancer, your age, and other health problems. Your treatment also depends on whether you might want to get pregnant in the future.

How is cervical cancer treated? — Cervical cancer can be treated in different ways:

Surgery – Some cases of cervical cancer are treated with surgery to remove the cancer. Different types of surgery can involve:

Removing the cervix, uterus, and upper part of the vagina – This is called a "radical hysterectomy" (figure 2).

Removing all or part of the cervix, but leaving the uterus in place – This surgery is done only in special situations.

Radiation therapy – Radiation kills cancer cells.

Chemotherapy – Chemotherapy is the medical term for medicines that kill cancer cells or stop them from growing. People with cervical cancer usually receive chemotherapy at the same time as radiation therapy.

What if I want to get pregnant in the future? — If you want to get pregnant in the future, talk with your doctor before starting treatment. You might be able to get pregnant after being treated for cervical cancer, depending on what treatment you have. If you want to get pregnant, your doctor will usually ask you to wait 6 to 12 months after finishing treatment before you start trying. This is because your body needs time to heal.

If you have a hysterectomy, or certain types of radiation or chemotherapy, it will not be possible to get pregnant afterward. If you need to have one of these treatments, your doctor or nurse can talk to you about other options for growing your family in the future.

What happens after treatment? — After treatment, you will be checked every so often to see if the cancer comes back. Follow-up tests can include exams and Pap tests. Sometimes, X-rays and other imaging studies are used.

What happens if the cancer comes back or spreads? — If the cancer comes back or spreads, you might have more surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy.

What else should I do? — Follow all of your doctor's instructions about visits and tests. It's also important to talk to your doctor about any side effects or problems you have during treatment.

Getting treated for cervical cancer involves making many choices, such as which type of surgery to have.

Always let your doctors and nurses know how you feel about a treatment. Any time you are offered a treatment, ask:

What are the benefits of this treatment? Is it likely to help me live longer? Will it reduce or prevent symptoms?

What are the downsides to this treatment?

Are there other options besides this treatment?

What happens if I do not have this treatment?

Can cervical cancer be prevented? — In many cases, yes. Almost all cervical cancer is caused by the HPV virus, which can spread through skin-to-skin contact and sex. Vaccines that prevent people from getting infected with HPV are now available. Ask your doctor if and when you should get an HPV vaccine. This vaccine is available for both males and females. It works best if a person gets it before they start having sex, but it can also help if you have already had sex. Also, treating precancer cells can keep them from turning into cervical cancer.

More on this topic

Patient education: Cervical cancer screening tests (The Basics)
Patient education: Cancer screening (The Basics)
Patient education: What are clinical trials? (The Basics)
Patient education: Preserving fertility after cancer treatment in women (The Basics)
Patient education: Vaginal cancer (The Basics)
Patient education: Human papillomavirus (HPV) (The Basics)

Patient education: Cervical cancer screening (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Management of a cervical biopsy with precancerous cells (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Colposcopy (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Cervical cancer treatment; early-stage cancer (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Fertility preservation in early-stage cervical cancer (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Follow-up of high-grade or glandular cell abnormal Pap tests (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine (Beyond the Basics)

This topic retrieved from UpToDate on: Jun 02, 2024.
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