Cervical cancer starts in the cells that line the cervix. The cervix is the lower portion of a women's uterus (also called the womb). It connects the uterus to the vagina and plays an important role during childbirth.
Before cervical cancer develops, the cells of the cervix start to change and become abnormal. These abnormal changes are precancerous, which means they are not cancer, but may, with time, become cancer. Precancerous changes to the cervix are called dysplasia of the cervix (or cervical dysplasia).
Precancerous conditions are quite common and can be easily treated if found early. That's why it's important to have regular pap tests and pelvic exams and talk about your risk factors with your doctor.
The main risk factor for developing cervical cancer is the sexually transmitted human papilloma virus (HPV) that infects the cervix. HPV is a group of more than 100 types of viruses. Some types of HPV can be passed easily from person to person through sexual contact. HPV infections are common and usually go away without treatment because the immune system gets rid of the virus. However, certain types of sexually transmitted HPV can cause changes to cells in the cervix that may lead to cervical cancer.
The HPV vaccine approved for use in Canada to prevent HPV infection should be viewed as a complement, not a replacement, for cervical cancer screening.
Other risk factors for developing cervical cancer include:
If you are sexually active you should have a Pap test and pelvic examination every 1 to 3 years depending on the screening guidelines in your province. If you have had a hysterectomy, you may still need a Pap test, but talk to your doctor about whether this is necessary. Even if you have stopped having sex, you should continue to have a Pap test.
Cervical cancer can develop over a long time without causing any signs or symptoms. Changes to the cervix are often discovered during your regular Pap test.
Having the following signs and symptoms does not necessarily mean that you have cervical cancer. They could be caused by other problems, so see your doctor to be sure:
Prepared by the Canadian Cancer Society. This information appeared originally on the Canadian Health Network Web site.