The cervix is part of the internal female reproductive system. Often referred to as the neck of the uterus (womb), the cervix is the narrow, lower part of the uterus that connects to the upper part of the vagina. The cervix has various functions including:
Two types of cells cover the cervix. Squamous cells are flat, thin cells found in the lower part of the cervix that opens into the vagina. Glandular cells or columnar cells are column-shaped cells that produce cervical mucus and are found higher up in the cervical canal. The ‘transformation zone’ of the cervix is where cells are constantly changing from glandular to squamous cells.
Sometimes cells in the cervix can change. These early cervical cell changes may be precancerous. This means there is an area of abnormal tissue that is not cancer but may lead to cancer and needs to be monitored. Only some people with precancerous changes of the cervix will develop cervical cancer. Click through to read more about:
Cervical cancer begins when abnormal cells in the lining of the cervix grow uncontrollably. It may then spread to other parts of the reproductive system or to other parts of the body.
There are two main types of cervical cancer which are named after the cells they start in:
Squamous cell carcinoma – begins in the squamous cells of the cervix. It accounts for around 80% of all cervical cancer cases.
Adenocarcinoma – begins in the glandular/columnar cells of the cervix. This type is less common and is harder to diagnose as it occurs higher up in the cervix.
A small number of cervical cancers contain both squamous cells and glandular cells. These cancers are known as adenosquamous carcinomas or mixed carcinomas. Other rarer types of cancer that can start in the cervix include small cell carcinoma and cervical sarcoma.
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Is cervical cancer HPV? Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by an infection called the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a group of viruses. It is a common infection with over 200 strains that affect various parts of the body. Approximately 40 strains of HPV which are spread via skin-to-skin contact during sexual activity affect the genital area. 80% of people of all genders will be infected with at least one of these strains of HPV at some point as a normal part of being sexually active. Any contact with the genital area can transmit HPV, including contact with the mouth, throat, and anus.
Most people who contract HPV do not develop cancer. HPV is usually harmless and doesn’t cause symptoms, so most people won’t even know they have it. Most of the time, the virus is cleared quickly by the body’s immune system in a few months. Occasionally low risk strains can cause genital warts to develop. These are growths on the genital area which are not cancer and can be treated.
If the immune system does not clear an HPV infection, high risk strains of HPV can cause normal cells in the lining of the cervix to turn abnormal, which may eventually develop into cervical cancer. It usually takes 10 to 15 years for cervical cancer to develop.
Because the strains of HPV that affect the genitals are transmitted through sexual contact, long term HPV infection can also lead to other cancers including anal cancer, vaginal and vulvar cancers, penile cancer, and oropharyngeal cancers (head, neck, mouth, throat)
Read further about prevention.
Cervical cancer does not usually carry any external symptoms until it is in advanced stages, and so the best way to prevent cervical cancer is through Cervical Screening Tests (previously known as Pap test or Pap smear).
However, if symptoms occur, they may include:
These symptoms can also be caused by other more common conditions. It is important to see your doctor if symptoms are ongoing. If necessary, your General Practitioner (GP) will refer you for further diagnostic tests.
ACCF is pleased to partner with healthdirect to offer medical information about cervical health.
The cervical health information line is a confidential service staffed by qualified medical professionals.
The line operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
For a complete list of terms relating to cervical health and cervical cancer, please see our glossary of terms.
Your cervical health is so important. ACCF is here to provide information and support to women, people with a cervix and their families. The following information is compiled in our Faces of Cervical Cancer support booklet. Please call ACCF on 1300 727 630 anytime for further information, support, or resources.
Most cases of cervical cancer develop from contracting the human papillomavirus HPV. As this is a virus you contract; there is currently little evidence that you are any more predisposed to developing cervical cancer if your mother or grandmother had it.
Currently, there is no cure for cervical cancer. There are effective treatments such as diverse types of surgery and chemotherapy that can rid the body of cancer completely, as is the case with all types of cancer. Like most forms of cancer, the effectiveness of these treatments is dependent on the stage and type of the cancer.
It depends on the case, the stage of the cancer and what is deemed the most appropriate treatment based on a variety of factors. As each person is different, it is important to discuss this with your healthcare professional.
It is unlikely you will contract HPV if you have not had any type of sexual intercourse. However, as HPV is spread through skin-to-skin contact with the genitals it is possible that other types of sexual contact could spread HPV.
If you have had any sexual contact with the genitals, then it increases your risk of contracting HPV.
Currently, there is no conclusive evidence that open-mouthed kissing with tongue (French kissing) can transfer an infection.