Cervical cancer is a tumour of the cervix. It is a common cancer in women and can be prevented by detecting precancerous cells in a cervical smear. .
The cervix is the part of the womb, which projects into the vagina. It measures less than one inch across and about one and a half inches in length. It is a block of a special type of muscle covered by a thin layer of surface cells. Cancer of the cervix develops in these surface cells, which first start to grow in an abnormal way (precancerous cells). After about 10 years, the precancerous cells turn into actual cancer cells, which spread into the muscle of the cervix, surrounding tissue and then to other parts of the body.
Precancerous cells in the cervix seem to develop after an infection of the cervix by a sexually transmitted virus called human papilloma virus. This virus also causes genital warts.
Other factors associated with the development of cervical cancer include things such as early start of periods, pregnancy as a teenager, having more than a few sexual partners or a sexual partner who has had several sexual partners, smoking and infection with a sexually transmitted disease at any time.
The cervix is probably more at risk to infection by human papilloma virus in teenage girls and in smokers. Having many sexual partners or sexually transmitted diseases increases the risk of coming into contact with human papilloma virus.
Precancerous cells in the cervix do not cause symptoms and cervical cancer does not usually cause symptoms until it has been growing for some time. The symptoms may then be bleeding after intercourse, bleeding between periods and a pink vaginal discharge. Later there is pain as the cancer starts to grow into other tissues.
Cervical cancer is one of the few cancers that can be treated before it develops. This is because cells from the surface of the cervix can be easily obtained and inspected under a microscope for precancerous cells (a cervical smear).