© 2005-2012 American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). All rights reserved worldwide.
Cervical cancer starts in a woman's cervix, which is the lower, narrow part of the uterus. The uterus holds the growing fetus during pregnancy. The cervix connects the lower part of the uterus to the vagina and, with the vagina, forms the birth canal.
Cervical cancer begins when normal cells on the surface of the cervix change and grow uncontrollably, forming a mass called a tumor. A tumor can be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous, meaning it can spread to other parts of the body).
At first, the changes in a cell are abnormal, not cancerous. Researchers believe, however, that some of these abnormal changes are the first step in a series of slow changes that can lead to cancer. Some of the abnormal cells go away without treatment, but others can become cancerous. This phase of the disease is called dysplasia (an abnormal growth of cells). The precancerous tissue needs to be removed to keep cancer from developing. Often, the precancerous tissue can be removed or destroyed without harming healthy tissue, but in some cases, a hysterectomy (removal of the uterus and cervix) is needed to prevent cervical cancer. Treatment of a lesion (a precancerous area) depends on the following factors:
- The size of the lesion and the type of changes that have occurred in the cells
- If the woman wants to have children in the future
- The woman's age
- The woman's general health
- The preference of the woman and her doctor
If the precancerous cells change into true cancer cells and spread deeper into the cervix or to other tissues and organs, then the disease is called cervical cancer.
There are two main types of cervical cancer, named for the type of cell where the cancer started. Other types of cervical cancer are rare.
- Squamous cell carcinoma, which makes up about 80% to 90% of all cervical cancers
- Adenocarcinoma, which makes up 10% to 20% of all cervical cancers
Find out more about basic cancer terms used in this section.
Looking for More of an Overview?
If you would like additional introductory information, explore these related items on Cancer.Net:
- ASCO Answers Fact Sheet: Read a one-page fact sheet (available in PDF) that offers an easy-to-print introduction for this type of cancer.
- Cancer.Net En Español: Read about cervical cancer in Spanish. Infórmase sobre cancer de cuello uterino en español.
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