Cervical cancer develops in the cells that line the cervix, a cylinder-shaped connective tissue situated between the vagina and the uterus. The cervix has two parts: the exocervix, which is located at the top of the vagina and covered in squamous cells, and the endocervix, which is located at the bottom of the uterus and covered in glandular cells. The junction of the two cell types is known as the transformation zone, which is where the majority of cervical cancers begin.
Most cervical cancers develop gradually after normal cells in the transformation zone undergo precancerous changes. However, not all precancerous cells progress into cervical cancer. What’s more, when precancerous cells are detected and treated early, cervical cancer can often be prevented or cured.
How can cervical cancer be detected early?
The most common screening test for cervical cancer is a Pap smear, which is highly effective for detecting precancerous and cancerous cells in the cervix, often before noticeable symptoms occur. Therefore, Pap smears are recommended for many women and are usually performed at regular intervals determined by a physician.
Nearly all cervical cancers are caused by a human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, which can trigger cellular DNA changes in the cervix. As such, HPV testing also plays an important role in the early detection of cervical cancer and may be recommended for some women along with regular Pap smears.
What are the warning signs of cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer does not have many distinctive warning signs. Usually, the first symptoms appear at later stages and only after abnormal cells in the cervix build up, bind together and form tumors. At that point, a woman may begin to experience:
- Unexplained vaginal bleeding, which may occur between menstrual periods or after sexual intercourse, a pelvic examination or menopause
- Unusual vaginal discharge, which may be thick, watery, odorous or tinged with blood
- Pain during sexual intercourse
- Pelvic or low back pain
- Difficulty urinating
- Swollen legs
Many of the early signs of cervical cancer can also be caused by other, less serious medical conditions, such as urinary tract infections and uterine fibroids, as well as conditions that affect other parts of the body. Therefore, it is important to promptly discuss any unusual changes with a physician. In addition to avoiding a misdiagnosis, that is the best way to ensure an optimal outcome and quality of life.
Benefit from nationally recognized expertise at Moffitt Cancer Center
If you would like to discuss your cervical cancer symptoms with a specialist in the gynecological clinic at Moffitt Cancer Center, you can request an appointment by calling 1-888-663-3488 or completing our new patient registration form online. We provide every new patient with rapid access to a cancer expert within one day, which is faster than any other cancer hospital in the nation. If you are diagnosed with cervical cancer, we will help you get started on a personalized treatment plan as soon as possible.