What is cervical cancer?

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 benign tumours such as polyps or fibroids, which are not cancer.


When cells of the cervix start to change and become abnormal, it is called dysplasia of the cervix, or cervical dysplasia. Dysplasia is a precancerous condition. This means that the cells are not yet cancer but there is a higher chance these abnormal changes will become cervical cancer. Dysplasia of the cervix is a common precancerous condition that can develop into cancer if it isn’t treated. Most women with dysplasia are successfully treated and do not develop cancer. But in some cases, changes to cervical cells can cause cancer.


Most often, cervical cancer starts in flat, thin cells called squamous cells. These cells cover the surface of the cervix and are in the lining of the cervix. This type of cancer is called squamous cell carcinoma of the cervix. Cancer can also start in glandular cells, which make mucus. These cells line the inside of the cervix. This type of cancer is called adenocarcinoma of the cervix.


Rare types of cervical cancer can also develop. These include adenosquamous carcinoma, which is also called mixed carcinoma, and glassy cell carcinoma.


Diagram of the female reproductive system


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We can give information about cancer care and support services in Canada only. To find a cancer organization in your country, visit Union for International Cancer Control or International Cancer Information Service Group.