By Jaime R. Herndon, MS, MPH
Published on March 21, 2023
Medically reviewed by Renita White, MD
Cervical cancer is the uncontrolled growth of cells in the cervix, which connects the vagina to the upper area of the uterus.1 It usually occurs in people over 30. The main cause of cervical cancer is infection with human papillomavirus (HPV), which is transmitted through sexual activity.
Over half of all sexually active adults acquire an HPV infection at some point in their lives, but not every person with a cervix will develop cervical cancer after acquiring HPV.1
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Basic information about cervical cancer.
This is typically a slow-growing cancer, which is why regular screening is important.
FatCamera / Getty Images
Cervical Cancer Symptoms
Many times, especially early on, you may not notice any specific symptoms of cervical cancer. This is why regular checkups with a gynecologist are important, as well as regular screenings.
Early Signs of Cervical Cancer
Early-stage cervical cancer usually doesn’t have symptoms, but when they are present, they can include:2
Vaginal bleeding after sex
Post-menopausal vaginal bleeding
Bleeding between periods, or abnormal periods like heavier bleeding than usual or longer periods
Watery vaginal discharge
Pain during sexual intercourse
Symptoms After Cancer Has Spread
After the cancer has spread, symptoms usually become apparent and can include:2
Painful bowel movements and/or rectal bleeding
Painful urination, trouble with urination, and/or blood in the urine
Dull ache in the back
Leg edema (swelling)
What Causes Cervical Cancer?
Persistent infection with high-risk strains of HPV causes almost all instances of cervical cancer.3 The vast majority of sexually active people will acquire an HPV infection at some point in their lives, and about half of these infections are with high-risk strains.3 HPV16 and HPV18 are the two most common strains that cause most cervical cancers.3
In most cases, the immune system clears the HPV infection. When the infection isn’t controlled or cleared, it stays active in your cells. This is when it can cause changes that can lead to cancer.
Although rare, fetal exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES) can cause cervical cancer after birth.3 DES was a drug given to pregnant people from 1940–1971 to help prevent miscarriage and preterm labor but later turned out to have adverse effects.
Cervical Cancer Risk Factors
Along with HPV infection, other risk factors that can increase the risk of developing cervical cancer:4
Smoking cigarettes or exposure to secondhand smoke
Becoming sexually active at a young age
Having multiple sexual partners
Having a weakened immune system
Using birth control pills
Having multiple births
Cervical Cancer Diagnosis
If you have symptoms of cervical cancer or screening tests show the possibility of cervical cancer, your healthcare provider will want to do follow-up tests to determine what’s going on. Along with a medical history, pelvic exam, and rectovaginal exam, you may undergo the following procedures and tests:5
Colposcopy: This procedure uses an illuminated magnifying instrument (colposcope) to look for cell changes on the cervix and collect samples for testing.
Biopsy (collecting a tissue sample to analyze in the lab): Procedures include loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP) or cone biopsy.
Imaging tests: These may look for signs that the cancer is spreading and can include chest X-ray, positron emission tomography (PET), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
Lab tests like complete blood count.
Cystoscopy: A thin tube with a camera is inserted through the urinary opening into the bladder.
Sigmoidoscopy: A thin tube with a camera is inserted through the anus to examine the rectum and the last third of the colon.
Types of Cervical Cancer
The main types of cervical cancer are squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma:6
Up to 90% of cervical cancers are squamous cell carcinomas, developing from cells in the exocervix; these cancers usually start where the exocervix (the part of the cervix opening into the vagina) joins with the endocervix (the part of the cervix opening into the uterus), called the transformation zone.
Adenocarcinomas start in glandular cells; in the endocervix, these are the cells that make mucus.
Rarer cervical cancers are mixed carcinomas or cancers that have characteristics of both of the above types; these are also called adenosquamous carcinomas.
Cervical Cancer Stages
The stages of cancer describe how far the cancer has spread in a person’s body. The stage of the cancer also helps to guide treatment decisions. The stages of cervical cancer are as follows:7
Stage 1: Cancer is in the cervix only. It is separated into stages IA and IB, depending on how deep the cancer is.
Stage 2: Cancer has either spread to the upper two-thirds of the vagina or the surrounding vaginal tissues. It is divided into substages depending on the size of the tumor and the spread of cancer.
Stage 3: The cancer has spread to the bottom third of the vagina and/or the pelvic wall, and/or is causing kidney issues, and/or is found in lymph nodes. It is subdivided into stages based on the extent of the spread.
Stage 4: Cancer has spread past the pelvis, to the lining of the bladder or rectum, or to other parts of the body. It is divided into two substages based on where the cancer has spread.
Cervical Cancer Treatment
Treatment for cervical cancer varies, depending on the stage of the cancer and where it spreads. A combination of treatments may prove useful.
Surgery may remove cancerous tissue or, when it has spread, various organs. It can include:8
Cold-knife conization: Removal of cancerous tissue on the cervix using a cold knife, performed in a hospital under general anesthesia
Sentinel node biopsy: Removal of a lymph node close to the primary tumor to check for the spread of the cancer
Hysterectomy: Removal of the uterus and cervix
Radical trachelectomy: Removal of the cervix and upper vagina
Bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy: Removal of both fallopian tubes and ovaries
Total pelvic exenteration: Removal of the uterus, cervix, bladder, vagina, rectum, and part of the colon
Radiation uses high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells. Radiation can be administered internally (called brachytherapy) with a radiation source placed in the vagina, or externally from a machine.9 It can also help relieve pain and shrink tumors.
Chemotherapy is medication that kills cancer cells or interferes with their replication. You can take it by itself or in conjunction with other therapies or drugs. Typical chemotherapy drugs for cervical cancer treatment include:8
Targeted therapy uses medications to interfere with certain enzymes, proteins, or other factors that are involved in cancer growth.8 For cervical cancer, targeted therapies include:8
Tivdak (tisotumab vedotin)
Can Cervical Cancer Impact Fertility?
Cervical cancer and its treatment can impact fertility, depending on what kind of treatment you have for it. Though healthcare providers often recommend radical hysterectomy and pelvic node dissection for early-stage cervical cancers, these also render you unable to get pregnant because they remove the uterus.
If you get diagnosed with early-stage cervical cancer, you might want to pursue surgery (a fertility-sparing radical trachelectomy, for example).10 This allows part of the cervix and all of the uterus to stay in your body, enabling you to conceive and then give birth by cesarean section.10
How to Prevent Cervical Cancer
Though there is no way to ever fully prevent any kind of cancer, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing cervical cancer.
Screenings for Cervical Cancer
Regular screening tests are the best way to catch cervical cancer in its earliest stages when it’s easiest to treat. Two screening tools for cervical cancer include the Pap test and the HPV test.11 You can take them together or alone during a pelvic exam.
The Pap test takes cells from the cervix to check them for any abnormalities, including cancer and pre-cancer. The HPV test swabs the cervix for cells and looks for high-risk strains likely to cause cervical cancer.11 It does this by looking at the cells for any pieces of the virus DNA.
Cervical Cancer Screening Guidelines
Regular screenings for cervical cancer are needed as it can have few symptoms and can be effectively treated when caught early. These are the current guidelines for people with a cervix from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPTF), which are endorsed by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the American Society for Colposcopy and Cervical Pathology (ASCCP):12
Screening should start at age 21, with a Pap smear (cytology) alone every three years until age 30.
For those ages 30–65, screening may proceed through any of the three methods. They may have a Pap smear alone every three years, or they may have primary HPV screening every five years, or they may have a co-test (Pap smear with HPV testing) every five years.
Those over 65 may stop screening if they had adequate negative prior screening results.
If you have a total hysterectomy (including removal of the cervix), screening can stop unless you have a history of cervical cancer or high-grade cervical precancerous lesions.
Talk with your healthcare provider about whether you may need more screening more often, given any risk factors or family history.13
HPV Vaccination for Cervical Cancer
Another way to help reduce the risk of cervical cancer is getting vaccinated against HPV. Vaccination can begin at age 9 and is recommended for everyone (all sexes) between the ages of 11 and 12.14 The vaccine is given in two doses, six to 12 months apart.
If a person is 15 or older when they get their first vaccination, they need three doses of the vaccine. Those with weakened immune systems should also get three doses.
The vaccine is not generally recommended for those over 26 because those over this age have already likely been exposed to HPV. If you are 26–45 and are interested in vaccination, talk with a healthcare provider about your risk for HPV and the possible benefits of the vaccine.14
Cervical Cancer Outlook
Cervical cancer is a slow-growing cancer. When caught early, cervical cancer that is confined to the cervix has a five-year relative survival rate of 92%.15 After spreading to nearby tissues, organs, or lymph nodes in the pelvic region, the survival rate falls to 59%.15
Though these are just statistics and do not represent individual cases, early detection and treatment are important for survival, which is why regular screenings are key.
Knowing symptoms, going for regular checkups, and having regular Pap tests and HPV tests can help your healthcare providers find any cervical abnormalities as early as possible. This allows them to monitor you and make treatment recommendations if they progress.11
With the availability of the HPV vaccine, healthcare providers can prevent many cases of cervical cancer.