What are the cervical cancer stages?

Doctor's advice / Sanitas Medical Centers

What are the cervical cancer stages?

Cervical cancer is a condition in which abnormal cells (malignant) appear in the human cervix, the part of the woman's body that connects the vagina to the upper part of the uterus (womb). While cervical cancer can be caused by genetic factors, the main cause is the Human Papillomavirus (HPV).

HPV infection is a sexually transmitted infection that spreads through direct contact. Any sexual activity with an infected person (including vaginal, anal, and oral sex) can transmit the virus.
It is usually a silent infection and most people do not know if they have it or not. Some people, however, can develop a long-term HPV infection. In this case, these abnormal cells in the cervix can start to change into precancerous and cancerous cells.

Luckily, HPV infection can be prevented. By practicing safe and responsible sexual activity, getting the appropriate vaccinations, and living a healthy lifestyle, most women can decrease their risk of contracting HPV.

Screening for Cervical Cancer 

Cervix cells altered by HPV can be detected before they become malignant with a PAP smear test. PAP smears are specific enough to detect the type of cervical alteration you may have. This helps doctors decide the best course of treatment, based on the stage and prognosis. Likewise, HPV can be detected by specific genetic tests.

These tests belong to the Cervical Cancer Screening tests, which obtain samples from the cervix by using a small brush. Screenings, like the cervical cancer screening test, are commonly used to diagnose common diseases in the early stages.
What are the types of cervical cancer?

The two main types of cervical cancer are squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma. Sometimes, a person can have both types of cells when they are diagnosed with cervical cancer.

  • A squamous cell carcinoma begins in the thin and flat cells called squamous cells covering the outer part of the cervix. Most cervical cancers are of the squamous cell carcinoma type.
  • An adenocarcinoma is a cancer that begins in the column-shaped glandular cells that line the inner cervical canal. It happens mostly inside the uterus.

What are the risk factors for developing cervical cancer?

Since the most common cause of cervical cancers is the HPV infection, the most important risk factors arise from sexual habits. Some of the most important include:

  • Multiple sexual partners. Having more than one sexual partner increases your chances of developing cervical cancer. The greater your number of sexual partners, the greater your chance of acquiring HPV.
  • Studies have also linked an early start of sexual activity to cervical cancer, as having sex at an early age increases your risk of HPV infection.
  • Having other STDs such as chlamydia, gonorrhoea, syphilis and HIV/AIDS increases your risk of HPV.
  • A weakened immune system can also play a role in developing cervical cancer. You may develop cervical cancer if your immune system is weakened by another health condition and you have HPV.
  • Smoking is also associated with cancers. For women, exposure to tobacco smoke has been associated with squamous cell cervical cancer in many studies.
  • Obesity has also been linked with many common diseases and infections. Being overweight or obese increases your overall risk of getting cancer.

If I have several risk factors, how can I find out if I have cervical cancer?

It is never too late to change our sexual and lifestyle habits. As with every other illness, the most important factor is prevention. Aside from that, regular screenings and visits to your primary care provider can help diagnose any issues early on.
Current recommendations suggest that women start screening for cervical cancer at age 21, regardless of sexual habits and history. During this screening test your doctor brushes cells from your cervix, which then are examined for abnormalities. The test can detect cells that changed increasing the risk of cervical cancer.
Visit your doctor regularly and ask about cervical cancer screening!
What happens if the tests show an abnormality?
If doctors find something is wrong, they will order a new test to confirm the results. Some small changes can go back to normal on their own, while others will require further evaluation.
If a diagnosis of cancer is confirmed, doctors will need to determine its current stage. Additional tests will be required to know how advanced it is. With this information, they can decide the most effective treatment for each particular case.

Staging is the best way to classify cancers and allows us to set up standards for treatment. Staging is measured in numbers from 0 to 4, and each stage corresponds to different situations and levels of spreading. For cervical cancer, the stages are:

  • Stage 0: Abnormal cells are present in the cervix only.
  • Stage 1: Cancer cells have grown from the surface into deeper tissues of the cervix. They can be also present in the uterus and in nearby lymph nodes
  • Stage 2: Cancer has now moved beyond the uterus, but not farther than the pelvis or the vagina. It may or may not affect nearby lymph nodes.
  • Stage 3: Cancer cells are present in the lower part of the vagina, or in the walls of the pelvis. They can be blocking the ureters, which are the ducts that carry urine from the kidneys to the bladder. It may or may not affect nearby lymph nodes.
  • Stage 4: Cancer cells have invaded the bladder or rectum, and are growing out of the pelvis. It may affect the lymph nodes. At this point, if left untreated, it can spread to several distant organs. This is what is called metastasis.

Are there symptoms of cervical cancer that I can detect before it spreads?
Early-stage cervical cancers generally do not produce symptoms, and they are also not found during a routine physical exam. This is why we should all get screened regularly!
However, cervical cancer can cause certain symptoms in it's advanced stages, including:

  • Vaginal bleeding after intercourse, between periods or after menopause.
  • Bloody vaginal discharge that may be heavy and have a foul odor.
  • Pelvic pain or pain during intercourse.

At this point, cervical cancers will be treated actively, depending on its stage.

How can I prevent cervical cancer?

HPV is the most common cause of cervical cancer. However, even if you do not have sexual intercourse, it is possible to develop cervical cancer. To reduce your risk of cervical cancer you should remember:

  • The HPV vaccine successfully prevents the infection. Ask your primary care doctor which HPV vaccine is appropriate for you.
  • Do not skip your screening tests. Starting at the age of 21, you should regularly be screened for cervical cancer. Ask your doctor about screening methods and timing.
  • Practice safe sex. Use a condom every time you have sex, and limit the number of sexual partners you have.
  • Avoid smoking. And if you don't smoke, don't think of starting. If you do smoke, discuss with your doctor strategies to quit.
  • And finally, exercise regularly, and keep good sleeping and eating habits. These recommendations are key for decreasing your risk for cervical cancer.

For more information about cervical cancer, schedule an appointment with our doctors and enjoy a new way of receiving healthcare! At Sanitas, we care about you!