Cervical cancer is a very slow developing cancer. It takes a long time for an HPV infection to become an invasive cancerous growth.

The slow growth of cervical cancer is why Pap tests are so effective at preventing cervical cancer. A regular Pap smear can check for any abnormal changes that will eventually lead to cervical cancer. That means you can receive treatment before the cancer ever fully develops.

Learn how cervical cancer develops, along with early symptoms, causes, prevention strategies, and treatment.

Cervical cancer develops very slowly. It can take years or even decades for the abnormal changes in the cervix to become invasive cancer cells.

Cervical cancer might develop faster in people with weaker immune systems, but it will still likely take at least 5 years. Fortunately, this means there is ample opportunity to detect and treat cervical cancer early. Routine Pap testscan detect any abnormal changes and pre-cancerous signs.

Cervical Cancer StageDescription
Stage ICancer is early and located on the cervix. Stage I cancer is very treatable.
Stage IICancer has spread beyond the uterus to surrounding areas such as the vagina but is still contained with the pelvis, and has not extended to the lower third of the vagina.
Stage IIICancer has spread to surrounding areas including pelvic lymph nodes, pelvic walls, and lower third of the vagina. Cancer might also be causing kidney swelling at this stage.
Stage IVCancer has spread beyond the pelvis to the bladder, rectum, or other parts of the body.

Cervical cancer spreads in stages once it has developed. These stages represent how far the cancer has spread in your body. How fast the cancer spreads depends on factors such as how quickly you receive treatment, your age at diagnosis, and your overall health.

The spread of the cancer also depends on underlying features of the cancer (such as cell type), and whether the person smokes.

Byproducts of tobacco have been found in the cervical tissues of women who smoke. Researchers believe these byproducts damage cell DNA and may contribute to the onset of cervical cancer. Smoking also weakens the immune system, hindering its ability to fight off HPV infections.

Early stage cervical cancers typically don’t have any symptoms. Symptoms usually don’t develop until the cancer grows larger and invades nearby tissue. At this time, the most notable symptoms are:

  • abnormal vaginal bleeding, such as spotting between periods
  • bleeding after intercourse
  • menstrual periods that are longer or heavier than usual
  • postmenopausal bleeding

Many of these changes, however, have other possible causes, including stress, weight loss, new medications, or chronic health conditions. It’s important to discuss any changes you notice with a medical provider, so you can find out what’s causing them.

Other symptoms you may experience

Menstrual changes aren’t the only possible symptoms. There are other signs to watch for and to discuss with a medical professional, especially if they happen more than once or twice. These symptoms typically begin when the cancer becomes larger and grows into nearby tissue:

  • bleeding after sex
  • pain during sex
  • abnormal vaginal discharge
  • bleeding after a pelvic exam
  • bleeding after you’ve gone through menopause
  • trouble urinating or having bowel movements
  • swelling of the legs
  • unexplained pain in your pelvis or back

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the primary cause (nearly 99 percent) of cervical cancer. HPV is spread through sexual and other skin-to-skin contact and is very common. Although there are hundreds of HPV strains, 70 percent of cervical cancers are caused by two of them: HPV 16 and HPV 17. The HPV vaccine can prevent these strains.

In addition to HPV, several risk factors are known to have a link to cervical cancer. These include:

  • contracting herpes or chlamydia
  • smoking
  • being exposed to the medication diethylstilbestrol (DES) in your mother’s womb
  • having limited access to medical care and Pap testing
  • having unprotected sex at a young age and with someone who’s considered high-risk for HPV
  • having more than three full-term pregnancies or getting pregnant while very young
  • those with limited access to screenings (Pap smears) or who choose not to screen

Your risk of HPV and other STIs goes up any time you have unprotected sex of any kind. Your risk for HPV also goes up if you started having unprotected sex at a young age and if you’ve had sex with someone who’s considered high-risk for HPV.

In addition, people who have a weakened immune system are at higher risk for acquiring an HPV infection, and thus cervical cancer. For example:

  • those with HIV
  • those with cancer
  • transplant recipients
  • those on immunosuppressive medications such as steroids

Cervical cancer is highly treatable when caught early. Your treatment options will depend on how far the cancer progressed. A doctor may order multiple imaging tests as well as a biopsy to determine your cancer stage and how far it has spread.

After a diagnosis is made, your treatment plan may include one or more of the following:

Palliative care can also be used to manage cancer symptoms and the potential side effects of treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation. Sometimes, if cancer isn’t responding to other treatments, another option could be to try clinical trials of new treatments that haven’t yet been approved.

You can’t eliminate your risk of cervical cancer, but you can take steps to lower your risk. To effectively prevent the majority of cervical cancers, the World Health Organization (WHO) strongly supports the HPV vaccination plus screening and treatment of all precancerous lesions.

In addition to helping prevent cervical cancer, these steps make it much more likely that if you do get cervical cancer, it can be caught, treated, and cured, early on:

  • Get an HPV vaccine — HPV vaccines protect you from the strains of HPV that are most likely to lead to cervical cancer.
  • Get Pap and HPV tests — Regular Pap and HPV tests are the best way to prevent pre-cancer from becoming cervical cancer. Regular testing allows any changes to be spotted and treated right away, significantly lowering your risk of developing full-blown cervical cancer.
  • Practice safe sex — Any unprotected sexual contact raises your risk of cervical cancer. It’s best to talk to any partners about safe sex and to use condoms during sexual contact.
  • Avoid smokingSmoking is linked to numerous health risks and can increase your risk for cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer develops slowly. It can take decades for an HPV infection to become cervical cancer. Fortunately, this means there’s plenty of time to detect any abnormal changes to your cervix that indicate cervical cancer.

Regular Pap tests can find these changes and allow you to get treatment before cervical cancer ever fully develops. Pap testing can also help you catch cervical cancer in the early stages.

The early stages of cervical cancer are very treatable. You’ll likely have surgery to remove the cancerous tissue and any nearby areas to which it has spread. Cervical cancer becomes more difficult to treat in later stages, so it’s important to catch it early.