Cervical cancer starts in the cervix, the lower part of the uterus (womb) located between the bladder and the rectum.

Cervical cancer usually develops slowly, and starts with the growth of abnormal cells that are not cancerous. The appearance of these abnormal cells may be the first evidence of cancer that develops years later. They can be detected with a pelvic exam or a Pap test.

If abnormal cells on the surface of the cervix spread deeper into the cervix, or to other tissues or organs, the disease is then called cervical cancer, or invasive cervical cancer. It’s different from cancer that begins in other parts of the uterus and requires different treatment.

Risk Factors

The following have been suggested as risk factors for cervical cancer:

  • Infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or other condition that weakens the immune system
  • Smoking
  • Having first had sexual intercourse at a young age
  • Having many sexual partners, and having partners who have had sexual intercourse at a young age and/or have had many partners themselves


Early detection of cervical problems is the best way to prevent cervical cancer. Routine, annual pelvic examinations and Pap tests can detect precancerous conditions that often can be treated before cancer develops. Invasive cancer that does occur would likely be found at an earlier stage. Women who are or have been sexually active, or are age 18 or older, should have regular checkups, including a pelvic exam and Pap test.

The HPV Vaccine

Because certain strains of HPV have been found to cause most cases of cervical cancer, research efforts have focused on developing a vaccine against HPV. Two HPV vaccines have been developed, and clinical trials of these vaccines have been successful.

One of the vaccines, Gardasil, was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2006 and can protect women from HPV infections. It protects against the two types of HPV responsible for most cases of cervical cancer.


When cervical problems are found during a pelvic examination, or abnormal cells are found through a Pap test, a cervical biopsy may be performed.

There are several types of cervical biopsies that may be used to diagnose cervical cancer, and some of these procedures that can completely remove areas of abnormal tissue may also be used for treatment of precancerous lesions. Some biopsy procedures only require local anesthesia, while others require a general anesthesia.


Treatment for cervical cancer may include surgery, radiation therapy, and/or chemotherapy.

Medical Reviewer: [Kimberly A. Stump-Sutliff, RN, MSN, AOCNS, Sara Foster, RN, MPH] Last Annual Review Date: 2009-07-15T00:00:00-06:00 Copyright: © 2000-2010 The StayWell Company, 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

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