What is Cervical Cancer?

The neck of the uterus, called the cervix, is lined with cells which, under ordinary circumstances, grow, divide and are replaced on an ongoing basis. This process called mitosis occurs throughout the body to ensure that the health and function of the cells, tissues and organ systems are maintained at optimal levels.

However, when cells divide, the good, the bad, and the ugly are replicated in the subsequent daughter cells. Cervical cancer results from a mutation in the cellular lining of the cervix, which spreads via mitosis to normal tissues and organs. Should this abnormal cell division go undetected and/or untreated, tumors will form and extensive spreading of the cancer (metastasis) will likely occur.

What Causes Cervical Cancer?

Most illnesses, including cancer, originate as a result of multiple factors working in concert. In the case of cervical cancer, there is no single cause. Rather, the initial cellular mutation is most likely triggered by one or a combination of conditions. Below are the primary causes of cervical cancer:

Women who smoke are twice as likely as those who don’t to get cervical cancer.1 Smoke from tobacco products is carcinogenic and is linked to cellular mutation in the cervical lining and is a contributing cause of cervical cancer.

Although cervical cancer can occur in women of any age, it occurs predominantly in women over 40 and rarely in women under 21. Therefore, advancing age may be considered a risk factor, or one of the many contributing causes of cervical cancer.

Human Papillomavirus (HPV)
A very common infection, the human papillomavirus (HPV), is a frequent precursor to abnormal cell growth (dysplasia) and is considered a primary cause of cervical cancer. Many women experience at least one HPV infection in their lifetime. Of the 100+ HPV strains, many are non-cancerous (benign), but others are known to cause cervical cancer (malignancy).

Compromised Immune System
A compromised immune system may compound the effects of the above and is considered to be a cause of cervical cancer, particularly in:2
Patients who have undergone organ transplant surgery. Immunosuppressive therapies are prescribed in order to stave off the body’s rejection of the implanted organ. Unfortunately suppressing the immune system can hinder the body’s ability to protect itself from disease.

Patients with HIV/AIDS
Patients with rare congenital syndromes that adversely affect their immune systems

Birth Control Pills
Long-term use (5+ years) of birth control pills is a contributing cause of cervical cancer. You should talk to your doctor about the pros and cons of various types of birth control for your situation.

Multiple Pregnancies
Multiple full-term pregnancies are a contributing cause of cervical cancer. No one really knows why this is, but it has been proven beyond doubt by large studies.

Diets low in fruits and vegetables are linked to an increased risk of cervical and other cancers. Also, women who are overweight are at a higher risk.

Signs and Symptoms of Cervical Cancer

Cancer of the cervix rarely exhibits early symptoms. By the time advanced cervical cancer symptoms are apparent, the cancer has likely metastasized1 – in other words, it has likely replicated and spread to other parts of the body. When they do present, symptoms of advanced cervical cancer may include:

  • Any unusual discharge from the vagina
  • Bleeding or spotting beyond your normal period

However, these symptoms of cervical cancer can also be indicative of many other conditions, most of them benign. Always consult your doctor for professional diagnosis of any medical condition.

Although most cervical cancer and early symptoms are seemingly invisible, there may be signs at the cellular level. These early signs are detectable via Pap tests administered in standard pelvic examinations.

Benign cells may divide abnormally and at an accelerated rate. This may sound like a symptom of cervical cancer, as described earlier, but in fact the cervical cells may be benign or precancerous.

Precancerous cells often behave like cancer cells. Indeed, they may turn into cancer cells if they are not treated. Typically, it takes several years for precancerous cells to mutate into cancer cells. So, rather than watching for symptoms of cervical cancer, your gynecologist will look for suspicious cell activity early during regular pelvic exams.

Scheduling regular pelvic exams is an important step women can take to prevent and detect cervical cancer.

PN 1002237 Rev B 01/2014
Available from: http://www.cancer.org/cancer/cervicalcancer/detailedguide/cervical-cancer-risk-factors