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The cervix is the lower, narrow part of the uterus (womb) located between the bladder and the rectum. It forms a canal that opens into the vagina, which leads to the outside of the body.
Cervical dysplasia is the abnormal growth of cells on the surface of the cervix. Considered a precancerous condition, it is caused by a sexually transmitted infection with a common virus, the Human Papillomavirus (HPV). Cervical dysplasia affects between 250,000 and one million women throughout the United States every year. Though women of any age can develop cervical dysplasia, the condition occurs most frequently in those between ages 25 and 35. With proper management and treatment, the condition may revert or improve before becoming cancerous. Although doctors have been able to screen for cervical cancer for more than half a century, it is the second leading cause of cancer deaths among women.
Cervical cancer, or invasive cervical cancer, occurs when abnormal cells on the surface of the cervix spread deeper into the cervix, or to other tissues or organs. Cervical cancer occurs most often in women over the age of 40. It is different from cancer that begins in other parts of the uterus and requires different treatment. Most cervical cancers are squamous cell carcinomas and adenocarcinomas.
There are a few factors that increase a person’s chance of cervical cancer. Cigarette smoking, and even exposure to second-hand smoke, can triple a person’s risk of developing the condition. Having multiple sexual partners, especially those who have had multiple partners themselves, can increase the risk, though sometimes people can develop the condition from exposure to just one partner. People with compromised immune systems, such as those with HIV, transplant recipients or those taking immunosuppression drugs, also are at higher risk.
HPV infection and cervical dysplasia generally cause no symptoms. Regular gynecological visits including a pelvic exam and Pap test can identify the conditions. Then your physician can help manage them before they turn cancerous. In some cases, the body clears HPV infection on its own.
Symptoms of cervical cancer usually do not appear until abnormal cervical cells become cancerous and invade nearby tissue. The most common symptom is abnormal bleeding that starts and stops between regular menstrual periods, or that occurs after sexual intercourse, douching, or a pelvic exam. Other symptoms may include:
- Heavier menstrual bleeding, which may last longer than usual
- Bleeding after menopause
- Increased vaginal discharge
- Pain during intercourse
These symptoms may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Consult a physician for diagnosis.