Cervical cancer is the growth of abnormal cells in the lining of the cervix. These abnormal cells can develop into tumours and in worst case scenarios – spread throughout the body. The cervix is part of the female reproductive system and is the narrow lower portion (or “neck”) of the uterus.
There are two main types of cervical cancer which are named after the cells they start in:
- Squamous cell carcinoma: the most common type of cervical cancer (about 80% of all cases), squamous cell carcinoma starts in the squamous cells of the cervix.
- Adenocarcinoma: a less common type of cervical cancer that develops from the glandular cells. Adenocarcinoma is more difficult to diagnose because it starts higher in the cervix, and is more difficult to reach with the brush or spatula used in a Cervical Screening Test.
- Producing moistness to lubricate the vagina
- Producing mucus that helps sperm travel up to the Fallopian tube to fertilise an egg from an ovary
- Holding a developing baby in the uterus during pregnancy
- Widening so the baby can be born via the birth canal (vagina).
Two types of cells, which line the surfaces of many organs and body systems, cover the cervix:
- Squamous cells: these are flat, thin cells found in the outer layer of the cervix that opens into the vagina
- Glandular cells or columnar cells: column-shaped cells that produce cervical mucus and are found in the cervical canal
- Infection with the Human Papillomavirus (HPV)
- Weak immune system
- Family history
- Exposure to Diethylstilboestrol (DES)
- Lack of regular cervical screening tests
HPV is an extremely common group of viruses that can affect both males and females. In fact, up to 80% of people will be infected with at least one type of HPV at some point in their lives.
There are over 100 different strains of HPV, which affect different parts of the body.
Some types of HPV are completely harmless and many have no symptoms. Other types of HPV cause common warts on the hands and feet.
Approximately 40 types of HPV affect the genital area. Some ‘low risk’ types of HPV (HPV 6 & 11) are responsible for genital warts in both men and women.
The types of HPV that affect the genitals are transmitted via direct skin-to-skin contact with the genital area. This means that is possible to contract genital HPV without having intercourse.
Because the types of HPV that affect the genitals are transmitted through sexual contact; HPV can lead to other cancers including penile cancer in men, as well as anal cancer and head, neck, throat and mouth cancers in men and women.
You may become aware of HPV if you have a positive Cervical Screening Test result, or if genital warts appear.
To read more about HPV please visit: http://www.hpv.com.au/
In the most cases, the body’s immune system will clear the virus from the body naturally within 8 to 14 months. If the immune system does not clear a HPV infection, it can cause normal cells in the lining of the cervix to turn abnormal, which in rare cases can develop into cervical cancer. It usually takes 10 to 15 years for HPV to develop into cervical cancer. Most women who contract HPV do not develop cervical cancer.
Fortunately, the HPV vaccine (Gardasil 9®) protects against nine of the main HPV types that cause 90% of cervical cancer.
- Atypia:The cervical cells have changed slightly. The cell changes may spontaneously regress naturally, but in some cases can worsen. If a cell shows signs of atypia, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have cancer or will get cancer. Atypia can also be caused by infection or irritation.
- Squamous abnormalities:The squamous cells of the cervix are abnormal. This may be classified as a low-grade or a high-grade abnormality High-grade abnormalities are pre-cancerous, and although they don’t usually cause symptoms they can sometimes progress to early cervical cancer if they’re not detected and treated appropriately.
These squamous changes are also called Cervical Intraepithelial Neoplasia (CIN) and are graded according to how severe they appear on a biopsy of the tissue. Early changes are categorised as CIN 1 and these will usually disappear without treatment. Further abnormal changes are categorised as CIN 2 or CIN 3.
- Glandular abnormalities:The glandular cells of the cervix are abnormal. These abnormalities require further assessment, as they may be either pre-cancerous or cancerous.
- vaginal bleeding between periods or after menopause
- pain during intercourse
- excessive tiredness
- lower back pain
- bleeding after intercourse
- unusual vaginal discharge
- leg pain or swelling
These symptoms can also be caused by other more common conditions so please don’t panic if you do experience them. However, see your general practitioner (GP) if you’re worried or if the symptoms are ongoing. If necessary, your GP will refer you for further tests. In many cases cervical cancer does not usually carry any external symptoms until it is in advanced stages, and so the best way to detect changes to the cervix cells is through the recommended 2-yearly pap test.