Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that develops in a woman's cervix. The cervix is the entrance to the womb from the vagina. Over the course of many years, the cells lining the surface of the cervix undergo a series of changes. In rare cases, these changed cells can become cancerous.
Normally, cells grow and multiply in an orderly way; however, damaged genes can cause them to behave abnormally.
They may grow into a lump called a 'tumour'. Tumours can be benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancer).
A malignant tumour is made up of cancer cells. If these cells are not treated, they may spread beyond their normal boundaries and into surrounding tissues, becoming invasive cancer.
The two main types of cervical cancer are named after the type of cells from which they originate:
- Squamous cell carcinoma - this is the most common type of cervical cancer, accounting for about 80% of all cases. It starts in the skin-like squamous cells of the cervix.
- Adenocarcinoma - this is a less common type of cervical cancer, which develops from the glandular cells. Adenocarcinoma is more difficult to diagnose because it originates higher in the cervix and is more difficult to reach with the brush or spatula used in taking a Pap test.
Abnormal bleeding doesn't mean that you have cervical cancer, but it's important to see your doctor as soon as possible. If your doctor suspects you might have cervical cancer, you should be referred to see a specialist as soon as possible.
Cervical cancer is one of few cancers where screening can detect pre-cancerous lesions. Having a regular Pap test (sometimes referred to as a 'Pap smear') is the best form of detection.
The National Cervical Screening Program (NCSP) recommends women between the ages of 18 (or two years after first sexual intercourse, whichever is later) and 69 years should have a Pap test every two years.
For further information visit the NCSP website at www.cancerscreening.gov.au or contact your doctor, health centre or family planning clinic, or phone 13 15 56 (for the cost of a local call).
Sources: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (Cervical screening), Department of Health and Ageing (National Cervical Screening Program, Program Fact Sheet), NHS Choices, UK (Cervical cancer), Cancer Australia (Cervical Cancer)
Last reviewed: October 2015