Cervical cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the cervix.
The cervix is the lower, narrow end of the uterus (the hollow, pear-shaped organ where a fetus grows). The cervix leads from the uterus to the vagina (birth canal).
Anatomy of the female reproductive system. The organs in the female reproductive system include the uterus, ovaries, fallopian tubes, cervix, and vagina. The uterus has a muscular outer layer called the myometrium and an inner lining called the endometrium.
Cervical cancer usually develops slowly over time. Before cancer appears in the cervix, the cells of the cervix go through changes known as dysplasia, in which cells that are not normal begin to appear in the cervical tissue. Later, cancer cells start to grow and spread more deeply into the cervix and to surrounding areas.
Cervical cancer in children is rare. For more information, see the PDQ summary on Unusual Cancers of Childhood.
Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection is the major risk factor for development of cervical cancer.
Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. Talk with your doctor if you think you may be at risk.
Infection of the cervix with human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common cause of cervical cancer. Not all women with HPV infection, however, will develop cervical cancer. Women who do not regularly have a Pap smear to detect HPV or abnormal cells in the cervix are at increased risk of cervical cancer.
Other possible risk factors include the following:
- Giving birth to many children.
- Having many sexual partners.
- Having first sexual intercourse at a young age.
- Smoking cigarettes.
- Using oral contraceptives ("the Pill").
- Having a weakened immune system.
There are usually no noticeable signs of early cervical cancer but it can be detected early with regular check-ups.
Early cervical cancer may not cause noticeable signs or symptoms. Women should have regular check-ups, including a Pap smear to check for abnormal cells in the cervix. The prognosis (chance of recovery) is better when the cancer is found early.