Cervical Cancer: Introduction

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 04/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will find some basic information about this disease and the parts of the body it may affect. This is the first page of Cancer.Net’s Guide to Cervical Cancer. To see other pages, use the menu. Think of that menu as a roadmap to this full guide.

About the cervix

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.

About precancer and cervical cancer

Cervical cancer begins when healthy cells on the surface of the cervix change and grow out of control, forming a mass called a tumor. A tumor can be cancerous or benign. A cancerous tumor is malignant, meaning it can spread to other parts of the body. A benign tumor means the tumor will not spread.

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, which is an abnormal growth of cells. The abnormal cells, sometimes called precancerous tissue, need 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, which is 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 2 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

Normal Cervical Tissue

Normal cervical tissue
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Mild Cervical Dysplasia

Mild cervical dysplasia
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Invasive cervical squamous cell carcinoma

Invasive cervical squamous cell carcinoma
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Adenocarcinoma in situ of endocervix--diseased

Adenocarcinoma in situ of endocervix
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These images used with permission by the College of American Pathologists.

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