Cervical Cancer Overview
Cervical cancer is a disease in which cancer cells grow in the cervix. The cervix is the lower, narrow part of the uterus that connects the uterus with the vagina. It is the outlet of the uterus through which menses flow and babies are delivered. Normally, the cells of the cervix divide in a regulated manner. If cells keep dividing in an unregulated manner, a mass of tissue forms. This mass is called a tumor. A tumor can be benign or malignant. In the cervix, cancer can arise either from the squamous cells (squamous cell carcinoma) that line the outer surface of the cervix or the glandular cells that are found in the channel that connects to the rest of the womb (adenocarcinoma).
A benign tumor is not cancer. It will not spread to other parts of the body. A malignant tumor is cancer. Cancer cells divide and damage tissue around them. They can enter the bloodstream and spread to other parts of the body. This can be life-threatening.
Pap smears are largely responsible for the significant decline in deaths from cervical cancer over the past 30-40 years. Despite this success, 11,270 women in the US still learn they have cervical cancer each year.
Cervical cancer comes in two major forms:
- Squamous cell cancer—arises form the cells on the outermost portion of the cervix that connects with the vagina
- Adenocarcinoma—arises from the gland cells that are found on the inner lining of the cervical canal
Squamous cancer is more common than adenocarinoma. Many cases of squamous cancer are associated with infection with a virus ( human papillomavirus or HPV), which, in addition to increasing the risk for cervical cancer, causes tell-tale changes in the cells of the cervix. These changes can be detected by Pap smear and indicate an increased risk for developing cervical cancer.
A vaccine has recently been developed to protect against infection by some (but not all) of the HPV strains associated with cervical cancer. Additionally, the administration of this vaccine has come under some scrutiny, especially when given to young girls whose bodies are still developing.
: image/317 "The Cervix" center
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Grady D. Guidelines push back age for cervical cancer tests. The New York Times website. Available at:
. Published November 20, 2009. Accessed November 23, 2009.
National Cancer Institute website. Available at: