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What is it?

Cancer of the cervix (cervical cancer) is caused by the uncontrolled growth of cells in the cervix. The cervix is the narrowed bottom portion of a woman’s uterus. Shaped like a cone, it connects the upper portion of the uterus to the vagina and is the ‘gateway’ of the birth canal.

Cervical cancer begins slowly, with precancerous changes in the cells lining the inside or outside of the cervix. These changes are called cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN) when detected on microscopic examination of a cervical cytology sample or a biopsy. If left untreated, CIN may progress to invasive cancer.

About 80-90% of cervical cancers are squamous cell carcinomas, occurring in the flat squamous cells that cover the outside of the cervix. Most other cases are adenocarcinomas, rising from mucus-producing gland cells of the inner endocervix (the opening of the cervix). A few cervical cancers are mixtures of both types.

With early detection, cervical cancer is usually easily treatable. Left unchecked, however, it is almost always fatal. Given time, the cervical cancer can spread (metastasise) to the rest of the uterus, the bladder, the rectum, and the abdominal wall. Eventually, it reaches the pelvic lymph nodes and spreads to invade other organs throughout the body.

Invasive cervical cancer was once a common disease in Australia. The Papanicolaou (Pap) smear was a screening tool that allows the detection of cancerous and precancerous changes in the cervix. Since the introduction of the cervical (Pap) smear, rates of cervical cancer in Australia and other industrialised nations have dropped by as much as 70%. From the end of 2017, the Pap smear test changed to an Human papillomavirus (HPV) screening test, which offers much greater sensitivity and specificity than the Pap smear.

In developing nations without screening programmes, however, cervical cancer is still a very serious concern. Cervical cancer continues to be the second most common type of cancer in women worldwide (after breast cancer).

Last Review Date: November 6, 2017

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