Cancer is a disease in which cells grow in an abnormal way. Normally, the cells divide in a controlled manner to replace old or damaged cells. If cells keep dividing when new cells are not needed, a mass of tissue called a tumor forms.

A tumor can be benign or malignant. A benign tumor is not cancer and will not spread to other parts of the body. A malignant tumor is cancer. Cancer cells invade and damage tissue around them. They can also enter the lymph and blood streams, spreading to other parts of the body. Cervical cancer is the development of malignant cells in the cervix.

Cancer Cell Growth

Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Normal Anatomy and the Development of Cervical Cancer

The cervix is a canal that connects the lower part of the uterus to the upper part of the vagina. The canal allows for menstrual blood to flow out of the body. When a woman is pregnant, the cervix helps to keep the fetus inside the uterus until labor and delivery. During labor, the cervix flattens and opens, allowing the fetus to pass into the birth canal.

Normal cells divide and grow to replace old or damaged cells. If the cells are altered, they divide in an abnormal way and behave as a cancer. It is not always known what triggers cells to produce cancerous cells, but almost all cases of cervical cancer are associated with human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. Persistent HPV infection causes irritation and inflammation, disrupting the normal cell structure. Eventually, this can lead to abnormal growth. HPV is very common, but not all HPV infection will turn into cervical cancer. Cervical cancer can also develop without the presence of HPV.

Cervical cancer can cause abnormal bleeding. If cancer spreads beyond the cervix, it can penetrate nearby structures, such as the vagina, uterus, rectum, and urinary tract, and interfere with their normal function. Cancer can also spread to lymph nodes or blood vessels, which can carry cancer cells to other areas of the body. The growth of cervical cancer in other areas of body is called metastatic cancer. The most common sites for metastatic cervical cancer are the bones, liver, and lungs.

The Cervix

Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Types of Cervical Cancer

There are 2 main types of cervical cancer that make up the majority of cervical cancers:

  • Squamous cell—Arise from the cells on the outermost portion of the cervix that connects with the vagina. This type accounts for over 80% of all cervical cancers.
  • Adenocarcinoma—Arise from the glandular cells that are found on the inner lining of the cervical canal. This type accounts for up to 15% of all cervical cancers.

Cervical cancer. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: Updated June 5, 2017. Accessed January 29, 2018.

Cervical cancer. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: Updated March 2017. Accessed January 29, 2018.

General information about cervical cancer. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: Updated October 13, 2017. Accessed January 29, 2018.

What is cervical cancer? American Cancer Society website. Available at: Updated December 5, 2016. Accessed January 29, 2018.

What is HPV? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: Updated December 20, 2016. Accessed January 29, 2018.

Last reviewed November 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Mohei Abouzied, MD, FACP  Last Updated: 11/13/2015