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Cervical cancer is the abnormal growth of cells in the cervix, part of the female reproductive tract. The cervix is the lower part of the uterus. It connects the body of the uterus to the vagina, which is also called the birth canal.
The main risk factor for cervical cancer is being infected with the human papillomavirus, or HPV. HPV is passed from one person to another through sexual contact. The virus is very common; most adults will have HPV at some point in their lives. Vaccinations (such as Guardisil) are now available to prevent infection by the most common types of HPV. In most cases, the immune system is able to rid the body of HPV on its own. In other cases, the infection remains and causes changes to the cells lining the cervix. If left untreated, these altered cells can develop into cervical cancer.
Altered cervical cells are easily detected through what is called a Pap test (also called a Pap smear or cervical smear). The National Cancer Institute suggests that a woman should have a Pap test every three years beginning no later than age 21 or three years after beginning to have sexual intercourse. To perform the test, a healthcare provider will scrape some cells from the cervix and study them under a microscope, looking for any abnormalities. If the cells appear abnormal, the provider may do further testing through a colposcopy or biopsy. A colposcopy allows the provider to see the cervix and look for any abnormalities through the use of a colposcope, an instrument with a light and magnifier that is inserted into the vagina. During a biopsy, cervical cells are removed and studied in the laboratory. There, a trained specialist can determine if abnormal cells are cancer.
The National Cancer Institute estimates 12,000 new cases of cervical cancer will occur in the United States in 2010, along with over 4,000 deaths caused by cervical cancer.
For more information about cervical cancer, we suggest
All information is from the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society.
Updated July 2010.