Cervical Cancer

By OBOS Common Medical Conditions Contributors | October 15, 2011

Cancer of the cervix is responsible for the deaths of half a million women around the world every year. In some countries, it is the leading cause of cancer death in women.

Since the 1940s, cervical cancer mortality in the United States has decreased by 75 percent. Currently, between 10,000 and 11,000 cervical cancer cases occur yearly, resulting in 3,000 to 4,000 deaths. (In comparison, about 40,000 women die yearly from breast cancer.) This decline is probably a result of Pap tests (which can catch cervical cancer early) and the treatment of precancerous cervical problems called dysplasia.

Most cervical cancer is caused by high-risk types of the human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted infection. Most women will have HPV at some point in their lives, but their immune systems will typically clear the virus without symptoms or treatment. HPV infections that persist over time typically many years can cause cell changes that can potentially lead to cervical cancer.

In its early stages, cervical cancer is almost always curable, depending on the severity of the lesions and the treatment used.

If severely abnormal cells have spread beyond the upper tissue layer (surface epithelium) of your cervix into the underlying connective tissues, you have invasive cervical cancer. A Pap test followed by a biopsy can determine whether that has happened. At first the spread is very shallow and may not involve the lymph or blood circulation systems.

Medical Treatments for Cervical Cancer

For invasive cervical cancer, most physicians recommend a hysterectomy with removal of lymph nodes in the pelvis. If the cancer has spread into the lymph or blood vessels, doctors usually suggest radiation or hysterectomy plus removal of the ovaries. Sometimes a combination of the two is used (chemotherapy is not as effective as local radiation). Recently, there have been efforts to find fertility-sparing surgeries for cervical cancer.

You should be involved in your treatment and have the final say in all decisions. If you have any doubts about treatments recommended by your healthcare provider, try to get second and third opinions.

For more information on diagnosis and treatment, see Cervical Cancer from the National Cancer Institute.