What Is Cervical Cancer?

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on January 21, 2021

Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable cancers in women. The rate of death from this disease has dropped by more than half in the past few decades.

Why? Mostly because of screenings and vaccinations. There is a vaccination against the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is spread through sexual contact and causes most cases of cervical cancer. And gynecologists routinely perform Pap smears, which can detect almost all cervical cancers. They may also screen for HPV.

Cervical Cancer Facts

There are two types of cells in the cervix, the lower part of the uterus that connects it to the vagina: squamous cells and glandular cells. Between 80% and 90% of cervical cancer cases involve the squamous cells (squamous cell carcinoma). The rest start from glandular cells and are called adenocarcinoma.

Early-stage cervical cancer rarely has signs or symptoms. You might not know anything is wrong until the cancer is more advanced. Then you could have irregular vaginal bleeding or discharge, or pain during sex. Fortunately, screening tests can detect cervical cancer, and the HPV virus that usually causes it, very early.

Also, cervical cancer is slow-growing. It usually takes a few years for a normal cervical cell to turn into a cancerous one, if it ever does. Finding and treating pre-cancerous cells is the best way to prevent cervical cancer.

Preventing Cervical Cancer

The most common type of cervical cancer starts when your cervical cells change and become pre-cancerous. So, finding those cells and treating them before they become cancer is important. 

Pap test. This is your first line of defense against cervical cancer. It is performed during a pelvic exam and checks your cervical cells for signs that they’re becoming, or have already become, pre-cancerous.

If you have an abnormal Pap test, your doctor will do more tests to look more closely at the cervix and remove more tissue from your cervix for a biopsy. Identifying pre-cancerous cells will allow treatment to prevent them from becoming cancer. In fact, it probably means that you won’t get cancer because treating them early will likely prevent them from becoming cancer.

There are a number of ways your doctor can get rid of the pre-cancerous cells. Usually, they can physically remove the tissue with a cone biopsy or destroy it with laser treatment or cryosurgery (freezing). These treatments almost always work.

If your Pap test shows cancerous cells, your doctor will do more tests to figure out what stage the cancer is in. Surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy are all treatment options, and the success rate will depend on how early the cancer was caught.

That’s why it’s so important to get a Pap test regularly. Talk to your doctor about how often you should have one. Most women between ages 21 and 29 should get it every 3 years. If you are age 30 and 65, you can add a test for high-risk HPV and extend your screening to every 5 years. Or, continue testing every three years with just a Pap smear. If you’re older than that, you may be able to stop testing if you have not had any abnormal Pap smears during routine screening.

HPV test. Because cervical cancer is so tied to HPV, it has many of the same risk factors. The more sexual partners you’ve had and the earlier you started having sex, the more likely you are to get HPV and cervical cancer. It’s the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States.

Low-risk HPV types cause genital warts, while high-risk types of HPV, like HPV 16 and 18, cause cervical as well as vulvar, vaginal, penile and mouth and throat cancers. But having HPV doesn’t mean that you’ll get cervical cancer.

After age 30, you should get an HPV test at the same time as a Pap test. This is called “co-testing,” and it’s the best way to detect early cervical cancer.

Experts recommend boys, girls and women get the HPV vaccine at age 11 to 26  to protect them from ever getting HPV. The vaccine is given in three doses over about 9 months. Teens who didn’t get the vaccine when they were younger should also get the vaccine. 

Other Risk Factors

When it comes to things that can cause cervical cancer, there are several that you control. Some you cannot, however, like family history. If your mother or sister has had cervical cancer, you’re two to three times more likely to have it than if they didn’t have it.

Age is another issue. Most women who get cervical cancer are between the ages of 20 and 50.

If you’re a smoker, you have double the chance of getting cervical cancer than a nonsmoker. Researchers think that tobacco byproducts can start the cell changes that make cancer develop.

Other things that increase your chances of getting cervical cancer include:

  • Long-term use of the birth-control pill
  • Three or more full-term pregnancies
  • Poverty (makes you less likely to be screened regularly)
  • Weakened immune system
  • A first pregnancy before age 17
WebMD Medical Reference



CDC: “Cervical Cancer is Preventable;” “Human Papillomavirus (HPV): Questions and Answers;” and “What Should I Know About Screening?”

American Cancer Society: “Cervical Cancer: Detailed Guide”  and “HPV and HPV Testing.”

Mayo Clinic. “Cervical Cancer.”

Office on Women’s Health. “Pap Test.”

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