What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that occurs in the cells of a woman’s cervix. The cervix is the lowest part of the uterus that connects it to the vagina. The cells in the cervix don’t suddenly change into cancer. Instead, these cells slowly develop into pre-cancerous cells first, and then the cells become cancerous over time. This process usually takes several years. If these cells are not found and treated in their earliest stages, they can spread to other tissues or organs. Most cervical cancer is either squamous [SKWAY-muhs] cell carcinoma or adenocarcinoma [ad-n-oh-kahr-suh-NOH-muhs].

A virus called the human papillomavirus, or HPV, often causes cervical cancer. There are several types of the human papillomavirus. HPV can be passed from one person to another during sex.

A screening test, called a Pap smear, can find abnormal cells before they become cancer. During a Pap smear, cells from the cervix are collected and examined under a microscope to check for the presence of cancer. Intermountain Healthcare follows the recommendation from the American Cancer Society that all women begin cervical cancer testing at age 21.

At one time, cervical cancer was one of the most common causes of death for American women. The death rate has gone down by more than 50% over the last 40 years. This is because of the increased use of the Pap smear.

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Women with early cervical cancers usually have no symptoms. Symptoms of cervical cancer often do not begin until the cancer is growing quickly and begins to spread to other body parts. When this happens, the most common symptoms are:

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding
  • Unusual vaginal discharge
  • Pain during intercourse