The cervix has a few different components. The endocervix is the opening leading into the uterus. Below that is the exocervix, which is just above the vagina. The exocervix is what the OB-GYN sees during an exam. These regions meet at what’s known as the transformation zone, which is the place where most cervical cancers begin. Take a look at the image below to get a better understanding of where these are located within the reproductive system:
Cervical cells don’t just suddenly become cancer. Rather, it’s a slow process as the cells go through some abnormal changes, known as precancer, which may eventually develop into cancer if left untreated. There are two main common types of cervical cancer, plus a third type that’s a combination of the other two. The types are classified according to how they look in a lab under a microscope.
Squamous cell carcinomas account for around 70 percent of cervical cancers, according to the SEER Cancer Statistics Review. Most squamous cell carcinomas begin in the cells near the transformation zone (where the exocervix and endocervix meet).
Most other cervical cancers are adenocarcinomas, or endocervical adenocarcinomas. These develop from the glandular cells that produce mucus.
They usually begin as a non-invasive type of cancer called adenocarcinoma in situ (AIS). AIS describes cancerous cells that only appear in one place.
Some cervical cancers affect both squamous cells (in the transformation zone) and glandular cells (the ones that produce mucus) from the start. These are known as adenosquamous carcinomas or mixed carcinomas.
Besides these most common types, there are a few rarer types of cervical cancer, including metastatic cervical cancer, which is cancer that has spread significantly (i.e., metastasized) around the body. Other less-common types of cancer that can affect the cervix and other areas of the body include:
- Small cell cervical cancer
Many people with cervical cancer don’t notice any signs early on, because symptoms generally appear when the cancer progresses to a later stage. This is why it’s so important to have regular gynecological checkups that look for changes in the cervix that could develop into cancer. These checkups can detect cervical cancer while it’s still at a very early stage, when there’s a better prognosis for recovery.
These are the symptoms of cervical cancer to be aware of:
- Periods that are much heavier or last longer than usual
- Unexpected vaginal bleeding and bleeding after sex
- Lower abdominal, low back, or pelvic pain
- Unusual vaginal discharge
After a cervical cancer diagnosis, an oncology team — a group of medical professionals who specialize in cancer treatments — may order tests to check whether the cancer has spread anywhere else in the body (known as invasive carcinoma). After that, the team will create a personalized action plan for treatment to target all of the affected areas.
Treatments can include surgery to remove the cancerous cells, as well as chemotherapy (cycles of medication) or radiotherapy (x-rays) to reduce the number of affected cells or treat other parts of the body. Health care providers may combine treatments depending on the particular case to boost the effectiveness. The good news is that when cervical cancer is caught early enough (with a Pap smear), it’s very treatable.
In fact, cervical cancer used to be the highest cause of cancer death for American women, but the U.S. National Cancer Institute reports that deaths have decreased by 75 percent since the 1950s, thanks to advances in screening and treatment techniques.
Keep these symptoms in mind and stay in tune with your body so you’ll know if something doesn’t feel right. Don’t hesitate to reach out to a health care provider if you have any questions or concerns about cervical cancer, and remember to get regular pelvic exams and Pap smears at the OB-GYN to protect your health.