What Is It?
The cervix is a small, donut-shaped structure, located at the top of the vagina. It is the entrance to the uterus. Cervical cancer begins with abnormal, microscopic changes in cells in the outer layer of the cervix, called the epithelium. This stage is called dysplasia. If changes continue to occur, cells may become cancerous and grow out of control.
Cervical cancer tends to grow slowly. It can remain in an early stage, confined to the cervical covering, for two to 10 years. Once cancer moves beyond this layer, it invades nearby tissue, including the main body of the uterus, the vagina, bladder and rectum.
Virtually all cervical cancer is caused by infection with certain types of human papilloma virus (HPV), which slowly damages the cells that line the cervix. HPV is a very common infection among sexually active women, but only a small number of women who get infected develop cervical cancer. Smokers and women who are infected with HIV are more likely to develop cervical abnormalities if they are infected with HPV.
In its early stages, cervical cancer does not cause any symptoms. Once it begins to spread, it may cause a blood-tinged or discolored vaginal discharge, spotting after intercourse or abnormal bleeding. These symptoms aren't unique to cervical cancer and can occur with many disorders of the female reproductive tract.
More advanced stages of cervical cancer can cause pelvic pain, appetite loss, weight loss and anemia.