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Cervical cancer is a malignant tumour that starts in the cells of the cervix. Malignant means that it can spread, or 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, or womb. 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, or benign, tumours such as polyps, cysts or fibroids.
Changes to cells of the cervix can also cause precancerous conditions. This means that these cells are not yet cancer, but there is a chance that these abnormal cells might become cancerous if not treated. Most women with precancerous changes of the cervix are successfully treated and don’t develop cancer.
Most doctors describe abnormal changes to squamous cells in the cervix using the term squamous intraepithelial lesion (SIL). Some doctors use the terms cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN) and cervical dysplasia, which are older ways of classifying changes in the cervix.
The most common type of cervical cancer starts in flat, thin cells called squamous cells. These cells cover the lining of the outer surface of the cervix (called the ectocervix). This type of cancer is called squamous cell carcinoma of the cervix. Cancer can also start in other cells that line the inside of the cervix (called the endocervix). These are called glandular cells, which make mucus. These cells line the passageway that connects the uterus to the vagina. This type of cancer is called adenocarcinoma of the cervix.
There are other rare types of cervical cancer. These include adenosquamous carcinoma, glassy cell carcinoma and mucoepidermoid carcinoma.
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