What is cancer?
Cancer is when cells in the body change and grow out of control. To help
you understand what happens when you have cancer, let's look at how
your body works normally. Your body is made up of tiny building blocks
called cells. Normal cells grow when your body needs them, and die when
your body does not need them any longer.
Cancer is made up of abnormal cells that grow even though your body doesn't
need them. In most cancers, the abnormal cells grow to form a lump or
mass called a tumor. If cancer cells are in the body long enough, they
can grow into (invade) nearby areas. They can even spread to other parts
of the body (metastasis).
What is cervical cancer?
Cancer that starts in cells of the cervix is called cervical cancer.
Understanding the cervix
The cervix is the lower, narrow part of the womb (uterus). It's located
between the bladder and the rectum. It forms a canal that opens into the
birth canal (vagina), which leads to the outside of the body.
Looking for precancer
Precancerous cells on the cervix are the first sign that cervical cancer
may develop. These cells can be seen on a Pap test. They are cells that
look abnormal, but are not yet cancer. The appearance of these cells may
be the first sign of cancer that will grow years later. Treating these
precancer cells can prevent cancer from growing. Precancer cells of the
cervix often don't cause pain or other symptoms. This is why regular
cervical cancer screening is so important.
Types of precancer
Squamous intraepithelial lesions (SIL) is a term that refers to abnormal
changes in the cells on the surface of the cervix. Changes in these cells
can be divided into 2 categories:
Low-grade SIL. This refers to early changes in the size, shape, and number of cells that
form the surface of the cervix. They may go away on their own or, with
time, may grow larger or become more abnormal, forming a high-grade lesion.
These changes may also be called mild dysplasia or cervical intraepithelial
neoplasia 1 (CIN 1).
High-grade SIL. This means there are a large number of precancer cells, and, like low-grade
SIL, these changes involve only cells on the surface of the cervix. The
cells often do not become cancerous for many months, perhaps years, but
without treatment, they will become cancer. High-grade lesions may also
be called moderate or severe dysplasia, CIN 2 or 3, or carcinoma in situ.
If abnormal cells on the surface of the cervix are not found and treated,
over time they can spread deeper into the cervix, or to other tissues
or organs. This is then called cervical cancer, or invasive cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer occurs most often in women younger than the age of 50.
Most cervical cancer is squamous cell carcinoma or adenocarcinoma.
The death rates for cervical cancer have declined sharply as Pap screenings
have become more prevalent. Today, most cervical cancer is found in women
who have not had regular screening.
Preventing cervical cancer
Cervical cancer is one of the few types of cancer that doctors know how
to prevent. There are two key ways to prevent cervical cancer:
Get regular Pap tests. These are done to find and treat any precancerous cells as soon as possible.
Prevent precancer cells. You can do this by avoiding contact with the human papilloma virus (HPV),
getting an HPV vaccine, and not smoking.