What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer starts in the cells of the cervix. A cancerous (malignant) tumour is a group of cancer cells that can grow into nearby tissue and destroy it. The tumour can also spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body.

The cervix is part of a woman’s reproductive system. It is the narrow lower part of the uterus (womb) and opens into the top of the vagina. It is the passageway that connects the uterus to the vagina.

Cells in the cervix sometimes change and no longer grow or behave normally. These changes may lead to non-cancerous (benign) tumours such as polyps, cysts or fibroids.

Changes to cells of the cervix can also cause precancerous conditions. This means that the abnormal cells are not yet cancer, but there is a chance that they may become cancer if they aren’t treated for a long time. The most common precancerous condition of the cervix is called different names depending on how it’s classified or reported. The most common classifications for precancerous conditions of the cervix refer to squamous intraepithelial lesion (SIL), cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN) and cervical dysplasia.

In some cases, changes to cells can develop into cervical cancer. Most often, cervical cancer starts in round, flat cells called squamous cells. These cells line the outer part of the cervix. This type of cancer is called squamous cell carcinoma of the cervix. Cancer can also start in other cells, called glandular cells. These cells line the passageway that connects the uterus to the vagina. This type of cancer is called adenocarcinoma of the cervix.

Rare types of cervical cancer can also develop. These include adenosquamous carcinoma, glassy cell carcinoma and mucoepidermoid carcinoma.

Expert review and references

  • Klopp AH, Eifel PJ, Berek JS, Konstantinopoulos PA . Cancer of the cervix, vagina and vulva. DeVita VT Jr, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA. Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 10th ed. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer Health/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2015: 72:1013-1047.
  • Levine DA, Dizon DS, Yashar CM, Barakat RR, Berchuch A, Markman M, Randall ME. Handbook for Principles and Practice of Gynecologic Oncology. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Wolters Kluwer; 2015.
  • National Cancer Institute. Cervical Cancer Treatment (PDQ®) Health Professional Version. 2018: http://www.cancer.gov/.
  • Oleszewski K . Cervical cancer. Yarbro CH, Wujcki D, Holmes Gobel B, (eds.). Cancer Nursing: Principles and Practice. 8th ed. Burlington, MA: Jones and Bartlett Learning; 2018: 50: 1397 - 1421.
  • Tewari KS, Monk BJ . Tumors of the cervix. Raghavan D, et al (eds.). Textbook of Uncommon Cancer. 5th ed. Wiley Blackwell; 2017: 43.7: 618 - 642.

The cervix

The cervix is the lower part of the uterus and connects the uterus to the vagina. Learn about the anatomy and physiology of the cervix.

Cancerous tumours of the cervix

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) and adenocarcinoma are the 2 most common tumours of the cervix. Learn about cancerous tumours of the cervix.

Precancerous conditions of the cervix

Precancerous conditions of the cervix may develop into cancer if left untreated. Learn about precancerous conditions of the cervix.

Non-cancerous tumours of the cervix

Polyps, nabothian cysts and fibroids are types of non-cancerous tumours that occur in the cervix. Learn about non-cancerous tumours of the cervix.