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Cervical Cancer Stages: Diagnosis, Predictions, and Management

Cervical cancer is a disease that occurs when cancerous cells grow in the cervix, the canal connecting the vagina to the uterus. Mainly caused by HPV, cervical cancer is highly preventable and, when detected early, has a good prognosis. Keep reading to learn about the four stages of cervical cancer, treatment options, and the cervical cancer survival rate.

Cervical cancer is the fourth most common type of cancer affecting women globally, so it’s important to know what it’s all about and how to protect your health. The disease develops in four stages, which are classified by the size of the tumor and how far it has spread beyond the cervix. As a rule of thumb, the lower the number (stage), the less it has spread, and the more treatable it is. As cancer progresses, it can move throughout the body via tissues, the lymph system, and blood vessels.

Early stage cervical cancer generally doesn’t have any symptoms, which is why regular testing is so crucial to keep yourself safe. In fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend testing every three years between the ages of 21–29 and every 3–5 years between the ages of 30–65. HPV vaccination is also a key way to prevent cervical cancer.

Gynecologists use several tests to diagnose cervical cancer, including:

  • Pelvic exam: a visual and physical assessment of the external and internal female pelvic organs
  • Pap smear: a screening that collects cells from the cervix
  • HPV test: an STI test involving a sample of cervical cells
  • Endocervical curettage: collection and examination of cervical tissue
  • Colposcopy: examination of the cervix with a magnifying instrument 
  • Biopsy: removal of abnormal cells found in a Pap smear

If cervical cancer is diagnosed, further testing helps providers pinpoint the exact stage of the cancer. This is the most important factor to consider when deciding on the best treatment plan.

Many treatments are available, and the oncology team (doctors who specialize in cancer care) will find the best course of action based on the stage of the cancer and the patient’s medical history and whether they want to get pregnant in the future. 

In stage 1 cervical cancer, the disease only affects the cervix. There are different classifications within this stage based on the growth of the tumor (1A and 1B stages).

In this stage, the cancer is quite small. In stage 1A, the tumor can only be seen under a microscope. It’s highly treatable at this point and has a very good prognosis for recovery. The earlier the cancer is caught, the better!

Early-stage cervical cancer is usually treated with surgery that either removes just the cancerous cells or affected areas, including the cervix and uterus. Radiation can also be used to kill the cancer cells. In stage 1B, treatment may also include chemotherapy (medication to destroy cancer cells).

The cervical cancer survival rate is very high for those diagnosed at stage 1. Ninety-five percent of people with this stage of cervical cancer will live for five years or more.

In stage 2 cervical cancer, the condition has moved beyond the cervix to the upper two-thirds of the vagina or to the tissue around the uterus, and the tumor has grown larger.

At this stage, health care providers can use a combination of surgery, radiation, and chemo to treat cancer.

Stage 2 cancer life expectancy is about 70 percent — meaning 70 out of 100 people live for five years or more.

In stage 3, the disease has spread to the lower third of the vagina or to the pelvic wall. As the cancer progresses, it will involve the lymph nodes and cause kidney problems.

Just like with stage 2, health care providers can treat stage 3 cervical cancer with a combination of surgery, radiation, and chemo.

For people diagnosed with stage 3 cervical cancer, there is a five-year or more survival rate of over 40 percent.

In stage 4 cervical cancer, the condition has spread beyond the pelvis and may be in far away areas of the body.

Stage 4A cervical cancer is treated the same way as the previous two stages. In the final stage (4B), supportive care that focuses on providing relief from symptoms and improving quality of life is offered alongside radiation or chemotherapy. Targeted therapy (medicine that attacks cancer cells) is another option for more advanced cervical cancer and is often used in combination with chemo. Health care providers may also suggest immunotherapy, which is a type of drug treatment that helps the immune system fight off cancer.

Finally, clinical trials of new anticancer drugs or therapy combinations may also be recommended to treat cervical cancer that is in the last stage.

Unfortunately, when cervical cancer is found at such a late stage, it becomes harder to treat and has a lower chance for recovery. The stage 4 cervical cancer survival rate is around 15 percent. 

The four stages of cervical cancer are diagnosed based on the size and location of the tumor, as well as how far it has spread throughout the body. When detected and treated early, people with this condition have a very high chance of achieving full recovery, so it’s important to get regular gynecological checkups.

Getting diagnosed with cervical cancer can be very shocking and scary. Each year, many people are diagnosed with this disease: in 2018 alone, there were 570,000 new diagnoses (according to the WHO). If you’ve been diagnosed with this condition, know that you are not alone. Your medical team will offer guidance on finding the best treatment plan for you, based on how far along the cancer has progressed and if you wish to have children in the future.

Take time for yourself to practice self-care — relaxation, eating, and sleeping well can help combat the stress and fatigue that can come from cancer and treatments. And be sure to reach out to your health care provider, a mental health counselor, a cancer support group, family, or friends for emotional support as you embark on your treatment journey. 

“Cervical Cancer: Basic Information”. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/cervical/basic_info/index.htm. Accessed 24 Mar 2021.

“Cervical Cancer: How is Cervical Cancer Diagnosed and Treated?”. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/cervical/basic_info/diagnosis_treatment.htm. Accessed 24 Mar 2021.

"Cervical Cancer Treatment (PDQ®)–Patient Version". National Cancer Institute, 2020, https://www.cancer.gov/types/cervical/patient/cervical-treatment-pdq. Accessed 24 Mar 2021.

“Cervical Cancer Survival”. Cancer Research UK, 2020. https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/cervical-cancer/survival. Accessed 25 Mar 2021.

"Preventing Cervical Cancer In The 21St Century". Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2019. https://www.cdc.gov/grand-rounds/pp/2019/20190125-presentation-cervical-cancer-H.pdf Accessed 18 Mar 2021.

"Cervical Cancer". World Health Organization, 2021, https://www.who.int/health-topics/cervical-cancer#tab=tab_1 Accessed 18 Mar 2021.

Mayo Clinic Staff. “Cervical Cancer: Diagnosis and Treatment.” Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 17 June 2021, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cervical-cancer/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20352506. Accessed 06 Sept 2021.

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