Cervical cancer is a cancer arising from the cervix. It is due to the abnormal growth of cells that have the ability to invade or spread to other parts of the body. Early on, typically no symptoms are seen. Later symptoms may include abnormal vaginal bleeding, pelvic pain, or pain during sexual intercourse. While bleeding after sex may not be serious, it may also indicate the presence of cervical cancer.
Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection appears to be involved in the development of more than 90% of cases; most people who have had HPV infections, however, do not develop cervical cancer. Other risk factors include smoking, a weak immune system, birth control pills, starting sex at a young age, and having many sexual partners, but these are less important. Cervical cancer typically develops from precancerous changes over 10 to 20 years. About 90% of cervical cancer cases are squamous cell carcinomas, 10% are adenocarcinoma, and a small number are other types. Diagnosis is typically by cervical screening followed by a biopsy. Medical imaging is then done to determine whether or not the cancer has spread.
HPV vaccines protect against between two and seven high-risk strains of this family of viruses and may prevent up to 90% of cervical cancers. As a risk of cancer still exists, guidelines recommend continuing regular Pap smears. Other methods of prevention include: having few or no sexual partners and the use of condoms. Cervical cancer screening using the Pap smear or acetic acid can identify precancerous changes which when treated can prevent the development of cancer. Treatment of cervical cancer may consist of some combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy. Five year survival rates in the United States are 68%. Outcomes, however, depend very much on how early the cancer is detected.
Worldwide, cervical cancer is both the fourth-most common cause of cancer and the fourth-most common cause of death from cancer in women. In 2012, an estimated 528,000 cases of cervical cancer occurred, with 266,000 deaths. This is about 8% of the total cases and total deaths from cancer. About 70% of cervical cancers occur in developing countries. In low-income countries, it is the most common cause of cancer death. In developed countries, the widespread use of cervical screening programs has dramatically reduced rates of cervical cancer. In medical research, the most famous cell line known as HeLa was developed from cervical cancer cells of a woman named Henrietta Lacks
Signs and symptoms
The early stages of cervical cancer may be completely free of symptoms. Vaginal bleeding, contact bleeding (one most common form being bleeding after sexual intercourse), or (rarely) a vaginal mass may indicate the presence of malignancy. Also, moderate pain during sexual intercourse and vaginal discharge are symptoms of cervical cancer. In advanced disease, metastases may be present in the abdomen, lungs, or elsewhere.
Symptoms of advanced cervical cancer may include: loss of appetite, weight loss, fatigue, pelvic pain, back pain, leg pain, swollen legs, heavy vaginal bleeding, bone fractures, and/or (rarely) leakage of urine or feces from the vagina. Bleeding after douching or after a pelvic exam is a common symptom of cervical cancer.
Infection with some types of HPV is the greatest risk factor for cervical cancer, followed by smoking. HIV infection is also a risk factor. Not all of the causes of cervical cancer are known, however, and several other contributing factors have been implicated.
Human papillomavirus types 16 and 18 are the cause of 75% of cervical cancer cases globally, while 31 and 45 are the causes of another 10%.
Women who have many sexual partners (or who have sex with men who have had many other partners) have a greater risk.
Of the 150-200 types of HPV known, 15 are classified as high-risk types (16, 18, 31, 33, 35, 39, 45, 51, 52, 56, 58, 59, 68, 73, and 82), three as probable high-risk (26, 53, and 66), and 12 as low-risk (6, 11, 40, 42, 43, 44, 54, 61, 70, 72, 81, and CP6108).
Genital warts, which are a form of benign tumor of epithelial cells, are also caused by various strains of HPV. However, these serotypes are usually not related to cervical cancer. It is common to have multiple strains at the same time, including those that can cause cervical cancer along with those that cause warts.
Infection with HPV is generally believed to be required for cervical cancer to occur.
Cigarette smoking, both active and passive, increases the risk of cervical cancer. Among HPV-infected women, current and former smokers have roughly two to three times the incidence of invasive cancer. Passive smoking is also associated with increased risk, but to a lesser extent.
Smoking has also been linked to the development of cervical cancer. Smoking can increase the risk in women a few different ways, which can be by direct and indirect methods of inducing cervical cancer. A direct way of contracting this cancer is a smoker has a higher chance of CIN3 occurring which has the potential of forming cervical cancer. When CIN3 lesions lead to cancer, most of them have the assistance of the HPV virus, but that is not always the case, which is why it can be considered a direct link to cervical cancer. Heavy smoking and long-term smoking seem to have more of a risk of getting the CIN3 lesions than lighter smoking or not smoking at all. Although smoking has been linked to cervical cancer, it aids in the development of HPV which is the leading cause of this type of cancer. Also, not only does it aid in the development of HPV, but also if the woman is already HPV-positive, she is at an even greater likelihood of contracting cervical cancer.
Long-term use of oral contraceptives is associated with increased risk of cervical cancer. Women who have used oral contraceptives for 5 to 9 years have about three times the incidence of invasive cancer, and those who used them for 10 years or longer have about four times the risk.
Having many pregnancies is associated with an increased risk of cervical cancer. Among HPV-infected women, those who have had seven or more full-term pregnancies have around four times the risk of cancer compared with women with no pregnancies, and two to three times the risk of women who have had one or two full-term pregnancies.
The Pap smear can be used as a screening test, but is false negative in up to 50% of cases of cervical cancer. Confirmation of the diagnosis of cervical cancer or precancer requires a biopsy of the cervix. This is often done through colposcopy, a magnified visual inspection of the cervix aided by using a dilute acetic acid (e.g. vinegar) solution to highlight abnormal cells on the surface of the cervix. Medical devices used for biopsy of the cervix include punch forceps, SpiraBrush CX, SoftBiopsy, or Soft-ECC.
Colposcopic impression, the estimate of disease severity based on the visual inspection, forms part of the diagnosis.
Further diagnostic and treatment procedures are loop electrical excision procedure and conization, in which the inner lining of the cervix is removed to be examined pathologically. These are carried out if the biopsy confirms severe cervical intraepithelial neoplasia.
This large squamous carcinoma (bottom of picture) has obliterated the cervix and invaded the lower uterine segment. The uterus also has a round leiomyoma up higher.
Often before the biopsy, the doctor asks for medical imaging to rule out other causes of woman’s symptoms. Imaging modalities including ultrasound, CT scan and MRI have been used to different extent to look for alternating disease/spread of tumor/effect on adjacent structures. Typically, they appear as heterogeneous mass in the cervix.
Cervical intraepithelial neoplasia, the potential precursor to cervical cancer, is often diagnosed on examination of cervical biopsies by a pathologist. For premalignant dysplastic changes, cervical intraepithelial neoplasia grading is used.
The naming and histologic classification of cervical carcinoma precursor lesions has changed many times over the 20th century. The World Health Organization classification system was descriptive of the lesions, naming them mild, moderate, or severe dysplasia or carcinoma in situ (CIS). The term, cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN) was developed to place emphasis on the spectrum of abnormality in these lesions, and to help standardise treatment. It classifies mild dysplasia as CIN1, moderate dysplasia as CIN2, and severe dysplasia and CIS as CIN3. More recently, CIN2 and CIN3 have been combined into CIN2/3. These results are what a pathologist might report from a biopsy.
These should not be confused with the Bethesda system terms for Pap smear (cytopathology) results. Among the Bethesda results: Low-grade Squamous Intraepithelial Lesion (LSIL) and High-grade Squamous Intraepithelial Lesion (HSIL). An LSIL Pap may correspond to CIN1, and HSIL may correspond to CIN2 and CIN3, however they are results of different tests, and the Pap smear results need not match the histologic findings.
Histologic subtypes of invasive cervical carcinoma include the following: Though squamous cell carcinoma is the cervical cancer with the most incidence, the incidence of adenocarcinoma of the cervix has been increasing in recent decades.
- squamous cell carcinoma (about 80-85%)
- adenocarcinoma (about 15% of cervical cancers in the UK)
- adenosquamous carcinoma
- small cell carcinoma
- neuroendocrine tumour
- glassy cell carcinoma
- villoglandular adenocarcinoma
Noncarcinoma malignancies which can rarely occur in the cervix include melanoma and lymphoma. The FIGO stage does not incorporate lymph node involvement in contrast to the TNM staging for most other cancers.
For cases treated surgically, information obtained from the pathologist can be used in assigning a separate pathologic stage, but is not to replace the original clinical stage.
Cervical cancer is staged by the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) staging system, which is based on clinical examination, rather than surgical findings. It allows only these diagnostic tests to be used in determining the stage: palpation, inspection, colposcopy, endocervical curettage, hysteroscopy, cystoscopy, proctoscopy, intravenous urography, and X-ray examination of the lungs and skeleton, and cervical conization.
Checking the cervix by the Papanicolaou test, or Pap smear, for cervical cancer has been credited with dramatically reducing the number of cases of and mortality from cervical cancer in developed countries. Pap smear screening every 3–5 years with appropriate follow-up can reduce cervical cancer incidence up to 80%. Abnormal results may suggest the presence of precancerous changes, allowing examination and possible preventive treatment. The treatment of low-grade lesions may adversely affect subsequent fertility and pregnancy. Personal invitations encouraging women to get screened are effective at increasing the likelihood they will do so. Educational materials also help increase the likelihood women will go for screening, but they are not as effective as invitations.
According to the 2010 European guidelines, the age at which to start screening ranges between 20 and 30 years of age, “but preferentially not before age 25 or 30 years”, and depends on burden of the disease in the population and the available resources.
In the United States, screening is recommended to begin at age 21, regardless of age at which a woman began having sex or other risk factors. Pap tests should be done every three years between the ages of 21 and 65. In women over the age of 65, screening may be discontinued if no abnormal screening results were seen within the previous 10 years and no history of CIN 2 or higher exists. HPV vaccination status does not change screening rates. Screening can occur every 5 years between ages 30 and 65 when a combination of cervical cytology screening and HPV testing is used and this is preferred. However, it is acceptable to screen this age group with a Pap smear alone every 3 years. Screening is not beneficial before age 25 as the rate of disease is low. Screening is not beneficial in women older than 60 years if they have a history of negative results.
Liquid-based cytology is another potential screening method. Although it was probably intended to improve on the accuracy of the Pap test, its main advantage has been to reduce the number of inadequate smears from around 9% to around 1%. This reduces the need to recall women for a further smear. The United States Preventive Services Task Force supports screening every 5 years in those who are between 30 and 65 years when cytology is used in combination with HPV testing.
Pap smears have not been as effective in developing countries. This is in part because many of these countries have an impoverished health care infrastructure, too few trained and skilled professionals to obtain and interepret Pap smears, uninformed women who get lost to follow-up, and a lengthy turn-around time to get results. These realities have resulted in the investigation of cervical screening approaches that use fewer resources and offer rapid results such as visual inspection with acetic acid or HPV DNA testing.
Barrier protection and/or spermicidal gel use during sexual intercourse decreases cancer risk. Condoms offer protection against cervical cancer. Evidence on whether condoms protect against HPV infection is mixed, but they may protect against genital warts and the precursors to cervical cancer. They also provide protection against other STIs, such as HIV and Chlamydia, which are associated with greater risks of developing cervical cancer.
Condoms may also be useful in treating potentially precancerous changes in the cervix. Exposure to semen appears to increase the risk of precancerous changes (CIN 3), and use of condoms helps to cause these changes to regress and helps clear HPV. One study suggests that prostaglandin in semen may fuel the growth of cervical and uterine tumors and that affected women may benefit from the use of condoms.
Abstinence also prevents HPV infection.
Two HPV vaccines (Gardasil and Cervarix) reduce the risk of cancerous or precancerous changes of the cervix and perineum by about 93% and 62%, respectively. The vaccines are between 92% and 100% effective against HPV 16 and 18 up to at least 8 years.
HPV vaccines are typically given to age 9 to 26 as the vaccine is only effective if given before infection occurs. The vaccines have been shown to be effective for at least 4 to 6 years, and they are believed to be effective for longer; however, the duration of effectiveness and whether a booster will be needed is unknown. The high cost of this vaccine has been a cause for concern. Several countries have considered (or are considering) programs to fund HPV vaccination.
Since 2010, young women in Japan have been eligible to receive the cervical cancer vaccination for free. In June 2013, the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare mandated that, before administering the vaccine, medical institutions must inform women that the Ministry does not recommend it. However, the vaccine is still available at no cost to Japanese women who choose to accept the vaccination.
Vitamin A is associated with a lower risk as are vitamin B12, vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene.
The treatment of cervical cancer varies worldwide, largely due to access to surgeons skilled in radical pelvic surgery, and the emergence of “fertility-sparing therapy” in developed nations. Because cervical cancers are radiosensitive, radiation may be used in all stages where surgical options do not exist.
Microinvasive cancer (stage IA) may be treated by hysterectomy (removal of the whole uterus including part of the vagina). For stage IA2, the lymph nodes are removed, as well. Alternatives include local surgical procedures such as a loop electrical excision procedure or cone biopsy. For 1A1 disease, a cone biopsy (cervical conization) is considered curative.
If a cone biopsy does not produce clear margins (findings on biopsy showing that the tumor is surrounded by cancer free tissue, suggesting all of the tumor is removed), one more possible treatment option for women who want to preserve their fertility is a trachelectomy. This attempts to surgically remove the cancer while preserving the ovaries and uterus, providing for a more conservative operation than a hysterectomy. It is a viable option for those in stage I cervical cancer which has not spread; however, it is not yet considered a standard of care, as few doctors are skilled in this procedure. Even the most experienced surgeon cannot promise that a trachelectomy can be performed until after surgical microscopic examination, as the extent of the spread of cancer is unknown. If the surgeon is not able to microscopically confirm clear margins of cervical tissue once the woman is under general anesthesia in the operating room, a hysterectomy may still be needed. This can only be done during the same operation if the woman has given prior consent. Due to the possible risk of cancer spread to the lymph nodes in stage 1b cancers and some stage 1a cancers, the surgeon may also need to remove some lymph nodes from around the uterus for pathologic evaluation.
A radical trachelectomy can be performed abdominally or vaginally and opinions are conflicting as to which is better. A radical abdominal trachelectomy with lymphadenectomy usually only requires a two- to three-day hospital stay, and most women recover very quickly (about six weeks). Complications are uncommon, although women who are able to conceive after surgery are susceptible to preterm labor and possible late miscarriage. Wait at least one year is generally recommended before attempting to become pregnant after surgery. Recurrence in the residual cervix is very rare if the cancer has been cleared with the trachelectomy. Yet, women are recommended to practice vigilant prevention and follow-up care including Pap screenings/colposcopy, with biopsies of the remaining lower uterine segment as needed (every 3–4 months for at least 5 years) to monitor for any recurrence in addition to minimizing any new exposures to HPV through safe sex practices until one is actively trying to conceive.
Early stages (IB1 and IIA less than 4 cm) can be treated with radical hysterectomy with removal of the lymph nodes or radiation therapy. Radiation therapy is given as external beam radiotherapy to the pelvis and brachytherapy (internal radiation). Women treated with surgery who have high-risk features found on pathologic examination are given radiation therapy with or without chemotherapy to reduce the risk of relapse.
Larger early-stage tumors (IB2 and IIA more than 4 cm) may be treated with radiation therapy and cisplatin-based chemotherapy, hysterectomy (which then usually requires adjuvant radiation therapy), or cisplatin chemotherapy followed by hysterectomy. When cisplatin is present, it is thought to be the most active single agent in periodic diseases.
Advanced-stage tumors (IIB-IVA) are treated with radiation therapy and cisplatin-based chemotherapy. On June 15, 2006, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the use of a combination of two chemotherapy drugs, hycamtin and cisplatin, for women with late-stage (IVB) cervical cancer treatment. Combination treatment has significant risk of neutropenia, anemia, and thrombocytopenia side effects.
For surgery to be curative, the entire cancer must be removed with no cancer found at the margins of the removed tissue on examination under a microscope. This procedure is known as exenteration.
Prognosis depends on the stage of the cancer. The chance of a survival rate around 100% is high for women with microscopic forms of cervical cancer. With treatment, the five-year relative survival rate for the earliest stage of invasive cervical cancer is 92%, and the overall (all stages combined) five-year survival rate is about 72%. These statistics may be improved when applied to women newly diagnosed, bearing in mind that these outcomes may be partly based on the state of treatment five years ago when the women studied were first diagnosed.
With treatment, 80 to 90% of women with stage I cancer and 60 to 75% of those with stage II cancer are alive 5 years after diagnosis. Survival rates decrease to 30 to 40% for women with stage III cancer and 15% or fewer of those with stage IV cancer 5 years after diagnosis.
According to the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics, survival improves when radiotherapy is combined with cisplatin-based chemotherapy.
As the cancer metastasizes to other parts of the body, prognosis drops dramatically because treatment of local lesions is generally more effective than whole-body treatments such as chemotherapy.
Interval evaluation of the woman after therapy is imperative. Recurrent cervical cancer detected at its earliest stages might be successfully treated with surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, or a combination of the three. About 35% of women with invasive cervical cancer have persistent or recurrent disease after treatment.
Average years of potential life lost from cervical cancer are 25.3. Around 4,600 women were projected to die in 2001 in the US of cervical cancer, and the annual incidence was 13,000 in 2002 in the US, as calculated by SEER. Thus, the ratio of deaths to incidence is about 35.4%.
Regular screening has meant that precancerous changes and early-stage cervical cancers have been detected and treated early. Figures suggest that cervical screening is saving 5,000 lives each year in the UK by preventing cervical cancer. About 1,000 women per year die of cervical cancer in the UK. All of the Nordic countries have cervical cancer-screening programs in place. Pap smear was integrated into clinical practice in the Nordic countries in the 1960s.