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Cervical Cancer

To view this article in the new Rare Cancers Australia Knowledgebase, click here 

Definition of cervical cancer:

Cancer that forms in tissues of the cervix (the organ connecting the uterus and vagina). It is usually a slow-growing cancer that may not have symptoms but can be found with regular Pap tests (a procedure in which cells are scraped from the cervix and looked at under a microscope). Cervical cancer is almost always caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infection.

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; drawing shows the uterus, myometrium (muscular outer layer of the uterus), endometrium (inner lining of the uterus), ovaries, fallopian tubes, cervix, and vagina. 
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. 

Squamous Cell Carcinoma with variants of cervix uteri

Squamous cells are the flat, skin like cells that cover the outer surface of the cervix (the ectocervix). Around 7 to 8 out of 10 cervical cancers are squamous cell cancer (70 to 80%). 

Adenocarcinoma with variants of cervix uteri 

Adenomatous cells are gland cells that produce mucus. The cervix has these gland cells scattered along the inside of the passageway that runs from the cervix to the womb (the endocervical canal). Adenocarcinoma is a cancer of these gland cells. It is less common than squamous cell cancer, but has become more common in recent years. More than 1 in 10 cervical cancers are adenocarcinoma (10 to 15%). It is treated in the same way as squamous cell cancer of the cervix.

Undifferentiated carcinoma of cervix uteri

Undifferentiated carcinoma is a usually aggressive, malignant epithelial neoplasm composed of atypical cells which do not display evidence of glandular, squamous, or urothelial cell differentiation 

Small cell cervical cancer

Small cell cancer of the cervix is a very rare type of cancer that starts in the neck of the womb, it is also known as small cell neuroendocrine carcinoma. Fewer than 3 in 100 women (3%) diagnosed with cervical cancer will have this type. It is called small cell because under a microscope the cells appear small, round or egg shaped, with a large nucleus.

Small cell cancers tend to grow quickly and need to be treated early. Due to the rarity and little research available on the disease, a distinct cause for small cell cancer of the cervix is yet to be found, although, like other types of cervical cancer, small cell cervical cancer is associated with the human papilloma virus (HPV) especially HPV 18. Small cell cervical cancer can also be found in combination with other more common forms of cervical cancer, such as squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma. However, small cell cervical cancer is faster growing and more aggressive than the other types of cervical cancer.

Signs and symptoms

Small cell cervical cancer is more likely to present without symptoms than other types of cervical cancer. However if it does present with symptoms they are the same as those of other cervical cancers, including:

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding during or after sexual intercourse, or between periods.
  • Post menopausal vaginal bleeding, if you are not on hormone replacement therapy or have stopped it for six weeks.
  • Unusual vaginal discharge.
  • Discomfort or pain during sex.
  • Lower back pain.

There is some evidence to suggest that on average women diagnosed with small cell cervical cancer tend to be younger than those diagnosed with other cervical cancers.

Diagnosis

Small cell cervical cancer is usually diagnosed by biopsy, which involves the removal of a small piece of tissue from the cervix and subsequent examination by a pathologist.

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.

Possible signs of cervical cancer include vaginal bleeding and pelvic pain.

These and other symptoms may be caused by cervical cancer. Other conditions may cause the same symptoms. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following problems:

  • Vaginal bleeding.
  • Unusual vaginal discharge.
  • Pelvic pain.
  • Pain during sexual intercourse.

Tests that examine the cervix are used to detect (find) and diagnose cervical cancer.

The following procedures may be used:

  • Physical exam and history: An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient’s health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
  • Pelvic exam: An exam of the vagina, cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, and rectum. The doctor or nurse inserts one or two lubricated, gloved fingers of one hand into the vagina and places the other hand over the lower abdomen to feel the size, shape, and position of the uterus and ovaries. A speculum is also inserted into the vagina and the doctor or nurse looks at the vagina and cervix for signs of disease. A Pap test of the cervix is usually done. The doctor or nurse also inserts a lubricated, gloved finger into the rectum to feel for lumps or abnormal areas.

Pelvic exam; drawing shows a side view of the female reproductive anatomy during a pelvic exam. The uterus, left fallopian tube, left ovary, cervix, vagina, bladder, and rectum are shown. Two gloved fingers of one hand of the doctor or nurse are shown inserted into the vagina, while the other hand is shown pressing on the lower abdomen. The inset shows a woman covered by a drape on an exam table with her legs apart and her feet in stirrups. 
Pelvic exam. A doctor or nurse inserts one or two lubricated, gloved fingers of one hand into the vagina and presses on the lower abdomen with the other hand. This is done to feel the size, shape, and position of the uterus and ovaries. The vagina, cervix, fallopian tubes, and rectum are also checked.

  • Pap smear: A procedure to collect cells from the surface of the cervix and vagina. A piece of cotton, a brush, or a small wooden stick is used to gently scrape cells from the cervix and vagina. The cells are viewed under a microscope to find out if they are abnormal. This procedure is also called a Pap test.

Pap smear; drawing shows a side view of the female reproductive anatomy during a Pap test. A speculum is shown widening the opening of the vagina. A brush is shown inserted into the open vagina and touching the cervix at the base of the uterus. The rectum is also shown. One inset shows the brush touching the center of the cervix. A second inset shows a woman covered by a drape on an exam table with her legs apart and her feet in stirrups. 
Pap smear. A speculum is inserted into the vagina to widen it. Then, a brush is inserted into the vagina to collect cells from the cervix. The cells are checked under a microscope for signs of disease.

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) test: A laboratory test used to check DNA (genetic material) for certain types of HPV infection. Cells are collected from the cervix and checked to find out if an infection is caused by a type of human papillomavirus that is linked to cervical cancer. This test may be done if the results of a Pap smear show certain abnormal cervical cells. This test is also called the HPV DNA test.
  • Endocervical curettage: A procedure to collect cells or tissue from the cervical canal using a curette (spoon-shaped instrument). Tissue samples may be taken and checked under a microscope for signs of cancer. This procedure is sometimes done at the same time as a colposcopy.
  • Colposcopy: A procedure in which a colposcope (a lighted, magnifying instrument) is used to check the vagina and cervix for abnormal areas. Tissue samples may be taken using a curette (spoon-shaped instrument) and checked under a microscope for signs of disease.
  • Biopsy: If abnormal cells are found in a Pap smear, the doctor may do a biopsy. A sample of tissue is cut from the cervix and viewed under a microscope by a pathologist to check for signs of cancer. A biopsy that removes only a small amount of tissue is usually done in the doctor’s office. A woman may need to go to a hospital for a cervical cone biopsy (removal of a larger, cone-shaped sample of cervical tissue).

Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

The prognosis (chance of recovery) depends on the following:

  • The patient's age and general health.
  • Whether or not the patient has a certain type of human papillomavirus.
  • The stage of the cancer (whether it affects part of the cervix, involves the whole cervix, or has spread to the lymph nodes or other places in the body).
  • The type of cervical cancer.
  • The size of the tumor.

Treatment options depend on the following:

  • The stage of the cancer.
  • The size of the tumor.
  • The patient's desire to have children.
  • The patient’s age.

Treatment of cervical cancer during pregnancy depends on the stage of the cancer and the stage of the pregnancy. For cervical cancer found early or for cancer found during the last trimester of pregnancy, treatment may be delayed until after the baby is born.

For more information on Cervical Cancer click here

This link is to the National Cancer Institute (NCI) cancer website in the United States. There may be references to drugs and clinical trials that are not available here in Australia.

Information has also been sourced from cancerresearchuk.org and jostrust.org.uk 

For information about clinical trials that are available in Australia click here

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